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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

On Hearing Wagner at the Proms

This 200th anniversary year of Richard Wagner’s birth has been a great celebration for his admirers. I had better admit that I am one of them. I write this having just listened to a marvellous performance of Götterdämmerung from the Proms. For me, the greatness of Wagner is not so much the theatre as the music. The luminous orchestration, the seamless marriage of instruments and voices, the use of distinctive musical themes or leitmotifs that act as musical and emotional signposts – all this adds up to an incomparable experience.

Someone once told me off when I was an undergraduate for listening too much (as he thought) to the Ring and trying to play parts of it on the piano. ‘It’s like a drug’ he said: ‘before you know it, you’re on a high and risk taking leave of your senses.  Look at Ludwig the Second who was seduced by Wagner’s music and went mad as a result. It’s what led to Hitler (a notorious admirer) and the death camps. Stick to Bach and Beethoven. At the very least, try to have an uneasy conscience about it’   

I’ve blogged on this site about my semitic background, and have paid tribute to my German-Jewish grandmother who was one of the most important influences of my life. Before the Third Reich, her family of assimilated Jews loved opera, especially Wagner. And even after she had survived the holocaust and made her home in England, she could never quite get it out of her system though I think she tried. When I was old enough, she asked me to play for her the ravishing Quintet from the last act of Meistersinger. Then it had to be the Prize Song, and then the Prelude. This gave me the permission I needed.

At theological college, one of my lecturers (Dr Jim Packer) asked if I would like to listen through the Ring cycle with him, one act every afternoon on the 24 (or so - I've forgotten how many it was) LPs of the legendary 1954 Fürtwängler version. (You have to have a lot of time for Wagner.) After each act, there was tea and then an hour’s conversation (more a tutorial) about the significance of Wagner and the Ring. JIP loved the cycle because, he told me, it was a profound myth of redemption. Its central theme was salvation through suffering: sacrifice offered so that the era of the corrupt gods could be ended and a new humanity be born. What could be more Christian than that? he insisted. Coming as it did from a highly conservative evangelical theologian, this was a remarkable insight for me as a raw young biblicist student barely out of his teens. I don’t think JIP ever wrote it up, but I have never forgotten it.

Rossini once said unkindly that Wagner had good moments but bad half hours. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially not, perhaps, those who are just as enthusiastically  marking this year’s other bicentenary, the birth of Verdi or the centenary of Britten's birth. I can only say what his music does for me. And that is, to touch me in places few other composers can reach.

I once went to a performance of my favourite of all Wagner’s music dramas, Tristan and Isolde. My wife bought me a ticket for the front stalls as a birthday present but didn’t come with me because, she said, she doubted if she would stay awake. It was staged in a self-conscious symbolist way that for me lost the naturalness of this profound story of human passion. So I decided to close my eyes and listen, lose myself in the waves of sublime music rising up from the orchestra pit a few feet in front of me, and imagine the 
drama in my own way. It was one of those experiences I knew I would never forget.

Should I as a Jewish-Christian man have an uneasy conscience about something that has touched me so deeply? To love the music is not to endorse the notorious self-serving egotism the composer was famous for, let alone the anti-semitism he purveyed. But the Jewish Daniel Barenboim, conductor of the Proms Ring, has had to negotiate this issue for himself. That he could give us such a rapturous series of performances speaks for itself. At the end of tonight’s Götterdämmerung it was several seconds before anyone could bear to break the long pregnant silence that followed the final cadence.  It was truly spellbinding. (Listen to the last 20 minutes on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer and judge for yourself.)

Like Caiaphas in St John’s Gospel, I think that Wagner’s music-dramas speak beyond anything the composer himself could know. Their universal vision gives the clue as to how our broken humanity can be put back together again.  Wagner spoke about the ‘music of the future’. It is – not just because it was artistically ground-breaking, but because of the range of its perspective and embrace. Like all great art, it speaks into our contemporary lives and dilemmas. It recognises who and what we are.

But for now, as the continuity announcer gently reminded us after the broadcast, ordinary life goes on. Tomorrow it will be Monday morning.

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