Thursday, April 14, 2005

Last of the Titans

This is part of the title of a new biography of Richard Wagner. I tend to think of Richard Wagner as the first of the Nazis, so it is a surprise to read in the New York Times that someone has recently written a book about his political writings.

In the Wagner section of a university library are one row of scores and another row of books of essays and other things he wrote. They are all in the music part of the library, not the political section. Wagner was a professional musician who took his profession for granted, just as I am now doing in writing a blog about music.

Wagner's place in music is huge. Basically he took the development section of the sonata allegro form out of its traditional context and blew it up to gargantuan proportions. He is in step with others of his generation--Liszt was busy inventing the tone poem, the mainstay of the remainder of the century. Berlioz had invented the leitmotiv--he called it something else, but he invented it--extending a theme across the movements of a more or less traditional symphony.

Wagner was interested in the concept of thematic transformation that is the center of the art of Beethoven, but divorced from its anchoring tonal base--the rest of the sonata form--he needed something else to give the resulting morass of modulation some kind of formal structure. In short, he needed to be an opera composer, a term he scorned.

He was a fabulous politician. He invented new words for the same old things: Gesamtkunstwerk. Isn't that a mouthful. Leitmotiv. And did a great job of pitching it to the king of Bavaria who built him a theater. He needed librettos, so he wrote his own, then pitched himself as a great poet. He was a terrible poet, but maybe a not too bad librettist.

He was also active in the cause for the unification of Germany, active enough to get himself exiled to Switzerland. He was for all Germans united into a single country. This was called Anschluss when Hitler finally accomplished it. He hated Jews, and a lot of that shelf of books is aimed at them. He was writing, both words and operas, to promote Aryan supremacy.

Hitler loved him. His political opinions might be better left ignored on the shelf.

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