26. Wagner (Without The Words): Ring Cycle - Highlights
[…] listening to Wagner
as outside in the dark
the wind blows a cold rain
the trees wave and shake
lights go off and on
the walls creak
and the cats run under the bed…
everything here shakes
in fierce gamble
yes, Wagner and the storm intermix with the wine
as nights like this run up my wrists and up into my head
and back down into the gut
some men never die
and some men never live
but we’re all alive tonight.
Excerpt from 1813–1883 by Charles Bukowski
Composers like Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler will rattle your walls. Wagner will drive a truck through those same walls, light the place on fire and mark his territory like a wolf, pissing on the burning remains. His 15 hour long opera cycle isn’t for everyone. Even Bukowski prefers “Wagner without the words” as he calls it.
Saying Wagner wasn't a nice man is like saying the Ku Klux Clan is a circle of friends with an interesting taste in wardrobe and lots of outdoor activities. He was envious of successful Jewish composers like Mendelssohn who had the financial support of the rich Jewish families and bankers, while Wagner was struggling to make a living throughout his career. On several occasions he publicly stated the Jewish elite had no business interfering in German culture.
In Wagner's defense: he was a 19th century antisemite, which is still a step away from 20th century Nazism. He had Jewish friends and worked with Jewish musicians, it was the Jewish elite he despised. He wanted them out of his hair, but he never stated they should be deported or exterminated. Yet the general conception is that his strong opinions helped shape Hitler’s ideas of dealing with the same population, 40 years after Wagner's death.
These instrumental highlights show why Wagner is first and foremost to be considered a groundbreaking composer, capable of shaping alluring landscapes. The sympathetic British actor, writer and presenter Stephen Fry is an avid Wagnerista, who lost Jewish family members during the Holocaust. In his excellent documentary Wagner And Me, Fry explains his criteria for dealing with Wagner:
“Imagine a great beautiful silk tapestry of infinite colour and complexity that has been stained indelibly. It’s still a beautiful tapestry of miraculous workmanship, but that stain is real, and I’m afraid Hitler and Nazism have stained Wagner. For some people that stain ruins the whole work; for others, it’s just something you have to face up to.”
Sir Georg Solti & Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
The also sympathetic Hans Knapperstbusch and Sir Georg Solti both have what it takes to shift all your attention from the stain towards Wagner’s remarkable talent.