Friday, March 25, 2016

Alex Ross at the New Yorker on pop culture remaking Richard Wagner in its own image ...

Full disclosure, I find the music of Richard Wagner so irritating I'd rather listen to a comparable number of hours of Stravinsky as a tonic.  Still, much as I dislike Wagner's music, Ross points out that popular culture has reinvented Wagner in ways that suit the times:

For decades, it has been claimed that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was murderous, even Hitler-like, in its intensity. The voluminous diaries kept by the composer’s second wife, Cosima, have supplied the main proof. The most dismaying exhibit: “He makes a drastic joke to the effect that all Jews should be burned at a performance of ‘Nathan [the Wise].’ ” An essay by Derek Hughes in the new issue of The Wagner Journal contests the prophet-of-the-Holocaust thesis, arguing that scholars have misread several entries in the diary as endorsements of violent anti-Semitism. For example, Hughes proposes that a passage long thought to record Wagner’s praise for a pogrom in Russia—“That is the only way it can be done—by throwing these fellows out and giving them a thrashing”—is, in fact, a commentary on the killing of anti-Semitic ruffians by Russian soldiers. On another occasion, Wagner expresses his “astonishment” over language employed in a “court case involving Jews”; this appears to be the infamous Tiszaeszlár affair, in Hungary, in which fifteen Jews were accused of ritual murder. Some of Hughes’s conclusions are arguable, but the case of Wagner is far from closed.

As for Wagner’s attitudes toward people of color, he was relatively progressive for his time. He made admiring remarks about Cetshwayo, the Zulu leader who humiliated English forces in the early stages of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879: “Fate takes a solemn view—Zulus are also human beings like ourselves.” Several times he cast doubt on the project of “civilizing” non-Western peoples. He said that the American Civil War was “the only war whose aim was humane.” He condemned a “spiteful remark” in a German newspaper about Harriet Beecher Stowe, evidently to the effect that Stowe was “stirring up the slaves.” He praised Carl Schurz, who immigrated to America, supported Abraham Lincoln, and was elected to the Senate. On the subject of Native Americans, he seconded Cosima’s view that “I would give the whole of discovered America in exchange for the poor natives’ not having been burned or persecuted.”

Cosima’s prejudices equalled or even exceeded those of her husband, but after she took over the Bayreuth Festival she made a remarkable gesture, one that would have been unthinkable in post-Civil War America. As I revealed in a 2013 article, she hired the mixed-race singer Luranah Aldridge for an 1896 production of the “Ring,” casting her as—strange to say—one of the Valkyries. Aldridge, whose father was the great black actor Ira Aldridge, fell ill and was unable to sing, but Cosima remained solicitous toward her. Aldridge apparently lived for a time at Wahnfried, the Wagner home. Only many decades later did the Metropolitan Opera venture to put a black singer onstage.

So the irony of Wagner playing behind Iñárritu is not as acute as it might seem. A composer who lamented the slaughter of Native Americans may well have accepted the message of “The Revenant.” The racist edge that moviegoers have learned to detect in “The Ride of the Valkyries” is, in fact, an outgrowth of homegrown, all-American hatred. “The Birth of a Nation,” one of the founding documents of Hollywood cinema, is far less liberal, by any measure, than the “Ring,” an epic of godly greed and corruption. In linking the “Ride” to the Klan, Griffith and Breil wrenched the music out of context and distorted it beyond recognition. Its appearance in “Apocalypse Now” is no less grotesque, although there it serves to satirize American bombast and arrogance.

“The Ride of the Valkyries” is no anthem of male rage and violence. The opening of Act III of “Die Walküre” is a purely female spectacle, in which the Valkyries carry the hate-ravaged bodies of slain warriors. More than a few early listeners saw the scene as one of feminist empowerment. A passage in Charlotte Teller’s 1907 novel, “The Cage,” a tale of a budding writer who yearns for freedom, describes the Valkyries’ effect at a concert in Chicago: “She felt herself, struggling, breathless, to get higher and higher. . . . She felt herself strong and vital, astride a horse of Walhalla. . . . It was only a war-woman, a Valkyrie, who could bring a man into the home of the gods.” What happened in the intervening years? Pop culture remade Wagner in its own image.

Still doesn't mean I want to hear Wagner without the help of Bugs Bunny but ... fair enough. :)

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