In Which its not Carry on Tristan. Plus Huddersfield Town – Bumper Wembley Issue!

 

Post 29

This week, that fine BBC radio programme In Our Time featured a discussion on Purgatory. Don didn’t listen to it but thought referencing it here would raise the general tone and bolster his tarnished reputation following the rather scruffy Post 28. Surely one of the lessons of the concept of Purgatory is that nothing lasts for ever. And so it is with some relief that season 2016/17 has finally finished and gone to a better place. Such was the reverential atmosphere at the latest Stop! Hammertime podcast featuring some sensible people and none other than Don. Should you wish to pay respects to the recently departed season you may do so here . If he can find them, Don will re-live one or two season “highlights” below. [Spoiler alert, scroll to the end for some footie – stay here for the classy stuff].

In other news, excitement builds for the forthcoming Longborough Festival Opera and Don will be there, in Morton-in-Marsh, for the opening night of Tristan and Isolde. It will be a magical evening and so in eager anticipation lets consider a few aspects, even some magical ones. So much has been written about it, so much seen in it; Don will merely scratch the surface.

It’s easy to be disdainful of the story of Tristan and Isolde. Two lovers, deceiving a cuckolded (would be) husband. More so, if one considers Gottfried von Strassburg’s medieval poem upon which Wagner drew extensively. This and the copious other accounts of the Tristan legend emphasised the cunning ruses played out by the artful lovers in their attempts to deceive King Marke.

But Wagner generally ignored the ribald “Carry On Tristan” aspects and honed it into an intense and deep psychological drama in which the real action occurs within the minds of King Marke and the eponymous two, as much as anywhere else. In this way we have a pinpoint edgy piece more in keeping with Alfred Hitchcock than Sid James.

Let’s take two medieval legends identified in Newman and elsewhere; they are both interesting and also draw out deeper nuances of the characters, in these cases, of Marke in particular. But first, the basics one needs to know, is that Tristan is the erstwhile loyal and favoured nephew of the King who was sent from Cornwall to Ireland to fetch Isolde (Iseut) as the King’s mate (and so future Queen). This was a strategic alliance with a defeated but still aggressive enemy and Iseut, the fiery Irish maid, is brought back under sufferance (to put it mildly).  The two fall in love on the journey due to a love potion but more significantly to previous complications.

So the two legends;

  1. Tristan and Iseut have fled and are living rough in a Cornish forest to escape the wrath of King Marke. They are discovered and the King is alerted. He finds them asleep in a cave, lips touching and with Tristan’s sword between them. King Marke has the right and the ability to kill them both as per his original intention. Instead and we can and shall ponder why, he leaves them in their sleepy embrace. But when they awake, they are in no doubt by virtue of various signs, that he was there and has chosen to spare them and ipso facto legitimise the adultery.
  2. In death, the lovers are buried by King Marke, at opposite sides of a graveyard. Briars emerge from each grave and reach across the graveyard to become entwined. King Marke has them hacked down. Twice more the briars reach out to each other and twice more are they cut down. On the third occasion, he leaves them and orders that they shall never be touched but left in perpetual embrace.

Neither of these legends appears in the opera but they feed into what the characters, including here King Marke, were feeling.

For ultimately Tristan, not just Wagner’s Tristan, though it is especially so, is about the transcendence of Love. Emphasis for now on transcendence because Love is too big a concept for this world; it is too big a concept for a concept. It transcends. The magic in Tristan is not a potion here or there, the magic is love, which, where it is so powerful that it metamorphoses two souls into one, it cannot be boxed in by important but wordly concepts like Honour, Loyalty and Trust. It must burst beyond this life and find peace only in death or wherever is beyond our understanding.

So in a possible answer to the question posed in Post 27; how much Schopenhauer does a Tristan or Isolde performer need to understand?, the answer is probably not too much. But Don (from his naïve non-musical soap-box), feels she certainly must understand where love sits in comparison to those other honourable attributes and how a certain type of love  can only be truly sated beyond this life. One doesn’t need to have understood Arthur Schop to feel this.

This doesn’t mean Trust, Honour, Loyalty wilt away without protest. Wordly responsibilities weigh heavy, as we are transported by the music inside Tristan’s head in Acts 2 and 3. His disloyalty to his uncle and King is killing him; indeed it is guilt over his love for Isolde from the pre- story, that makes him volunteer to “fetch” her back to Cornwall in the first place.

This cannot be intellectualized, this must be felt and in Don’s view it can only be wholly felt where it resonates with life experience. Only a parent can truly feel what Wotan feels in bidding Leb Wohl to Brunhilde and only one who has loved and lost and balanced other loyalties can truly “feel” Tristan and/or Isolde. And this is also the majesty of good art. It can take a story from a thousand years before and extrapolate the timeless mythical aspects to make it real now. In Don’s limited experience Wagner does this like no other. As much as Shakespeare tries, it cannot be done simply with words. They are descriptive, prescriptive, clinical by comparison. Music though…is soul. And in Tristan, where those cellos and violins are in utter supremacy, music reaches into ours, burglarizes and leaves us a wretched mess.

In a sense the tension between word and music applies within the opera. It is probably beyond doubt that is one of Wagner’s less wordy operas. Various academics say Isolde claims the music and Tristan the poetry.

Back to Schopenhauer. There is a reason that Don bleats on about him in regard to Tristan in particular. Wagner had completed Das Rheingold and Die Valkyrie and most of Siegfried when his reading, nay consumption of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, caused such an epiphany in his world outlook that he abandoned his Ring Cycle to let his thoughts settle. He would say his world view was not changed but clarified by Schopenhauer which meant the direction of the Ring Cycle needed to be arrested. It would be 12 years before he was ready to adjust Siegfried’s path and the first opera he produced in the interregnum was Tristan. Of course with Wagner, rivers do not run smoothly and there were also pragmatic reasons to create an “easier” opera , such as putting food on the table but the fact remains that Wagner thought differently for the rest of his life after initially reading Schopenhauer and the first piece he produced was Tristan.

The legend of Tristan extends beyond, well, beyond the legend. Tales of Wagner’s composition of it as well as early performances also play on its psychological force and add grist to the mill.

As he concluded the work, Wagner wrote to his muse Mathilde Wesendonke in 1859, only partly in jest….”Child! This Tristan is turning into something terrible! This final Act!!! – I fear the opera will be banned, unless the whole thing will be parodied in a bad performance -. Only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad.” And it did.

Whether or not acted upon, it is a comfortable leap that for Wagner, the Tristan/Isolde/Marke triptych, was himself, Mathilde and his long-suffering wife, Minne. Moreover, a decade or so later, after it finally debuted,  the first conductor, Hans von Bulow, assumed the real life King Marke role as he gave up his wife Cosima to Wagner, if not willingly then at least with good grace. As life to an extent imitated art, he loved his wife but worshipped the composer.

The first ever Tristan, in the opera associated as much as any other with the ultimate sacrifice, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld lasted four apparently memorable performances before a tragically early death, aged just 29.

Musicians have gone insane, lives have been lost under their own hand; all attributed to this opera.

In Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks, Pfuhl, the music tutor, engaged to teach the young student Hanno recoils at the prospect of playing Tristan to his young charge. As he says to Hanno’s mother… ”I won’t play this Madam. I am your most obedient servant but I will not play it. That is not music…It is pure chaos! It is demagoguery, blasphemy and madness! It is a fragrant frog with thunderbolts! It is the end of all morality in the arts. I will not play it!”  The young boy Hanno, is later exposed to the forbidden musical fruit which leads to his death.

Mark Twain, on a visit to Germany, heard Tristan at Bayreuth and commented: “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. [Wikipedia]

So what the hell is it about this piece that provokes such extreme emotion?

It all starts with the Tristan chord. A few notes, a few seconds and music changed forever. A chord that doesn’t settle but ends in a question; a question that will not be answered for over four hours and then after trial, tribulation, tension building on tension, finally, finally finds an end, resolving in death, the ultimate peace. A grateful longed for death.

For the players, orchestra and audience it has been a psychological and emotional experience like no other in opera. Here’s a hint of what they are going through.

Marke: a proud King. Trusts Tristan implicitly. When Tristan betrays that trust he  questions what is trust, what is loyalty when the personification of both falls short. Ultimately forgives his nephew, lieutenant and friend.

Isolde: Her hatred for Tristan has several strands. He represents the imperialist conquering force. He killed the great Irish warrior (and her lover/betrothed?) Morholt and then mortally wounded himself, deceived Isolde into using her magical powers to cure him and in curing, love him. Above all though, she hates him for returning to her, not as lover but to claim her for another. Yet even her hatred wilts under the radiant intensity of her love for him. A love she did not seek but a love that claimed her.

Tristan: A loyal servant to his King, to whom he has devoted his life he too does not seek love but it is thrust upon him, he cannot be both loyal to his King and be with the women he loves. Only in secret night can they share a half-life and only in ultimate night; death, can he find moral resolution, and only in death does that half-life become whole.

Only in death can the half-life Purgatory finally end and the lovers find release and peace.

Only in death can it be Tristan and Isolde, Isolde and Tristan. Only in death can he become Isolde and she Tristan. Only in death (or at least the final curtain), can the audience be released from the tension of the Tristan Chord. Happy Days!

 

West Ham? The best we can say is the season is dead and buried. Resurrection and fresh optimism awaits in August.

STOP PRESS STOP PRESS

As we write, a penalty rolls into the bottom left corner and with it Mr.Wagner and Huddersfield Town roll into the Premier League. Tristan and Isolde bites into the soul but in terms of nail-biting drama, its hard to beat what I’ve just watched. Will Don be good to his word and abandon West Ham for Wagner and Huddersfield? How will he Tristan like, deal with those opposing loyalties? Those good Yorkshire folk will understand when I say..”Welcome Mr Wagner, welcome Huddersfield Town. But don’t be so soft, lad. Tristan and Isolde? Don bleeds Claret and Blue.”

 

If you have been, thanks for listening.

COYI! 

©DonnertheHammer.com 2017

 

In Which Don muses further on Die Meistersinger. Good v Evil (part 2)

Post 20

Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg. Last time we laid some groundwork. Now what the hell is it all about? Unfortunately with this opera, the elephant in the room is the baggage it carries so lets firstly have a go at that and then look at the many more uplifting aspects.

And while we are musing, we shall spare a little time later for the Hammers’ sterling (don’t rub it in Don) performance at Anfield and the 1-0 slaughter of Burnley.

On the face of it, bloke wins singing competition and gets the girl. The goodies are good, the baddie is more laughable than bad. Its sunny (even the night seems well lit), written largely in a style that is generally bright and uplifting and has lots of catchy tunes. That sounds more Gilbert and Sullivan than Wagner. Because of this, some Wagnerites cast aspersions upon it because its not sufficiently Tristan. For same reason, non-Wagnerites consider it the most accessible of his cannon. Performances sell out and it is one of the most popular operas going. What’s not to like?

Well that it was used by them to glorify the Nazi cause may have something to do with it.

Lots to consider; the dark side, charged with anti-Semitism and being fuel for the Nazi cause, boils down to two points:

  1. The humiliation of Beckmesser; and
  2. The glorification of things German (Aryan) in Hans Sachs’ final address.

But first a little Nazi background for those that may not know. Wagner was Hitler’s  favourite composer and for all of the reasons the Nazis are associated with Nuremberg (see Donner the Hammer, Post 19), it is hard to disassociate 16th or 19th century Nuremberg from Nazi Nuremberg. And in 1940’s Nuremberg, Hitler commissioned performances of Die Meistersinger during the Nuremberg rallies – much to the chagrin of officers and men who no doubt would have preferred to be down the beer keller.

In Post 19, Don posed two questions;

  1. Should Wagner and particularly Die Meistersinger be damned because of the adoption by the Nazis? and
  2. To what extent should evaluation of art be affected by the personal traits of the artist?

Academics have devoted careers to these questions so this is dipping toes into big water but your average West Ham fan is cleverer and more curious than your average bear so lets give it a go.

First Question.

On the face of the matter, this is the easier one. It was written over several years in the 1860’s; Wagner dies in 1883, 50 years prior to Hitler’s Chancellorship in 1933, so lets criticize the Nazis for sullying a great piece of art but the other way around? Surely not. However, art triggers reaction; gut feel, If it doesn’t its pointless and the better the art, the more profound the reaction. Wagner wanted that reaction, he wanted his art to change society, that was his raison d’etre. So if people hate Wagner’s work by association, that is to be respected and is of course their prerogative.

He was an anti-Semite but that was far more normal in his time than thankfully in ours (though we are rising up that shameful league). He was a German nationalist and whilst one cannot claim that to be an exclusively liberal cause, there were liberal aspects to it and he aspired to those. He certainly did not perceive it as a forerunner to fascism, his political thinking was far too left of the spectrum for that. Divorced from his personal antisemitism, his operas generally speak to tolerance, compassion and humanity.

So what then should we make of the final monologue in which Hans Sachs warns of respecting not only German art but German masters? Moreover being wary of foreign influence and rule. An apologist would say this must be considered in context. Which is, that it was a private conversation with Walther who had just rejected the offer to become a Meistersinger. Sachs was telling him not to be disrespectful; that it is the traditions of the Masters that had preserved German art and that good art and consequently good society comes from a blend of following ones heart and emotion and believing in our intuitive spark of genius  (- so of course for Walther, read Wagner) but also in respecting tradition. The apologists may also say that for “foreigner” read French, not Jew. German nationalism was a product of the post Napoleonic Wars era as much as anything else. German lands were not the only part of Europe to feel they had been under French influence for too long and valued their own traditions.

The non-apologist says Who are you trying to kid? Mid 19th century German nationalism may have had positive aspects but Wagner was at the dodgy end; consider his antisemitism (see below). Moreover, the passage may have been said to Walther but was said by Sachs (which counts), was resounded by the entire community and to boot, are the closing remarks of the opera. So where does Don stand on this? Read on

Second Question

That he was antisemitic is beyond doubt; he wrote, profusely explaining his views on everything, this included, so we know. It would be too easy to dismiss this as a defect plain and simple but a genius such as Wagner deserves the effort to be understood, at least. Let us try.

Wagner was an artist über alles. It framed his world view on almost everything, including Jews. True art, he thought, gushed unrestrained from the soul, the artist being almost passive in the process; a mere conduit from which the creative spark spontaneously burst. So for more than one opera, he would start with a few notes in his head, not quite knowing from where they had come and felt compelled to write and create around and from the little tune. Some of his best work would (so he tells us) gush out and fill the pages without him giving it a great deal of thought. Literally composing from the heart.

True art was for the people and by the people. He refers to ancient Greece as the pinnacle of culture not only because Greek Tragedy brought together music, words, drama in a way other art did not (and had not since) but it involved much of the community as actors and chorus, with the rest of the community watching (and so participating in) the performance. I think he was getting at this with Die Meistersinger in which the community (volk) is almost a character.

So where did he think this left Jews? Firstly, no matter how assimilated, he considered them, rightly or wrongly, to be outsiders. Therefore their art was disadvantaged. Secondly, the process of assimilation must make it contrived. Jews were creating art not from the soul but from the brain. The Jewish artist felt compelled to ask, “What does the community want to hear/watch/read that will make me more accepted?” And then produced that. So there was a sincerity gap. There is a short step to saying Jews produced only commercial art, which opens the murky trap door of just being in it for the money and Wagner was all too prepared to cross that line.

Overlaid are his personal circumstances (chickens and eggs, naturally). Poor to the point of destitution and on the run as a political deviant, he could only look on with envy as the darlings of the European opera, Meyerbeer and Halevy, both Jews, had success after (commercial) success while the genius Wagner was in early years, largely ignored. Ironically not ignored by Meyerbeer who offered to help him but the altruist becoming the sworn enemy is a well trodden path by would be genii.

We have considered before his contempt for contemporary music.   Over commercialised, audience more important than the art etc. etc.

So, limited by brevity, lets take it that he’s an anti-Semite and we know a little about why that is. The question that leaves, is does it influence his art and even if so, does that make the art worse (obviously, yes). If it doesn’t influence the art, are his views relevant as commentary upon that art?

So again because he writes about everything, we have it from the horses mouth. He denied there were any Jewish characters in his work. Firstly because much is myth based, personal characteristics in that sense are less important. Even the apparently obviously Christian characters in say Parcifal are not necessarily representing Christians. Secondly because of the outsider status of the Jew, the character was insincere and so offered insufficient  depth to be of use in his art. Bizarre but that is my understanding of what he felt. So for all one seeks in Kundry, Mimme, Alebrich or Beckmesser, Wagner himself denied.

And for all the praise lavished on him by the Nazis and for all they would have wanted to make the point, it was never claimed by the Nazis that there was any Jewish element to his work.

Yet many see just that throughout Die Meistersinger and in particular centring on the character Beckmesser, the anti-hero and butt of much of the humour. Some of the many reasons given are

  1. the Jewish cantonal style of his singing.
  2. his poor physical characteristics at the start of Act 3
  3. his treatment as the outsider
  4. the use of the “hilarity” leitmotiv.

So in turn..

  1. I have been Jewish for as long as I can remember (blame the parents) and suffered many more synagogue services than I would wish. Beckmesser’s musical style is staccato, jerky and unmelodic. It conveys his character; petty, slightly malicious bureaucratic. We have little sympathy. However, none of it particularly calls to mind a cantoral style, though admittedly one cannot compare eras. Nor have I seen documented examples as to how it does, other than in general terms. The entire last scene of Act 2 runs to a backdrop of Beckmesser’s song in which the whole community join. This doesn’t seem likely if Wagner intended him to represent a Jew.
  2.  This is ridiculous. He was beaten up previous evening. Anyone would have been limping the next  morning.
  3. He is not an outsider. He is a Meistersinger; steeped in that tradition as much as the rest of them, including Sachs. His name is simply a German name. We know from early drafts of the libretto that he was initially called something much closer to Eduard Hanslick, a famous (part Jewish) music critic of the day. Hanslick unfavourably reviewed Lohengrin and was never forgiven by Wagner, who wrote the book on bearing grudges and seething resentment. So undoubtedly an interesting development. but is it telling us anything beyond an artist’s hatred of critics, especially one unfavourable to himself? One of the main thrusts is Walther’s natural ability v The Meistersingers (and especially Beckmesser) singing by the rules (or by rote). I see this as the point and Hanslick’s Jewish connection as merely not helping.
  4. This is quite interesting. Newman (see Glossary) identifies the hilarity motif in Wagner Nights. It is a very short passage that appears in the body of the work only once, when Beckmesser walks out to sing his prize song at the competition. Cue general mocking hilarity and jeering from the gathered crowds to this little tune. He then slips off the little platform and cue further mirth. It is a little nothing ditty.  Except that it does appear elsewhere; right at the end of the overture and again, having been preluded a few bars earlier, in almost the closing remarks of the opera. Now that is interesting; the themes developed in the overture are otherwise all highly significant. Why put something in the overture that is used just once in the work apart from it closes the whole opera? And, just after Hans Sachs’ anti-foreign outburst? Interesting! Especially when it is so cutting and so insulting to Beckmesser. It is inconceivable that this is coincidence. Might Wagner be saying “Ok whatever else you take from this, don’t forget we’ve got to blame and get rid of the outsider…the Jew”???  I can’t dismiss that but I don’t really buy it, much because for the reasons above, Beckmesser was not an outsider. There is also much evidence in the libretto that whilst it would be nice if he could learn not to be such a petty fool, he will nevertheless, always be welcome as part of the community. So I conclude anti-Beckmesser but not more sinister.

Finally, having said there are no Jewish references in the opera, that is not quite true. There are several references to King David. He is the old bearded king on the Pogner coat of arms (which whilst not an entirely positive message is still quite an endorsement). But more significantly, early on Eva likens Walther to David. Not to the old fella above, not to Lena’s David but to the beautiful young man in the Dürer picture; the young David about to slay Goliath. The Nuremberg born renaissance painter held a special place in German hearts at the time and certainly in Wagner’s. I have not been able to identify the picture but Eva refers to him as very handsome and fair; hardly an anti-Jewish reference and a link by Wagner of the main hero Walther (who is a thinly disguised Richard Wagner) to a Jew! Maybe somewhat simplistic but there nevertheless.

Time is running out and Don has not got to the uplifting essence on the nature of Art and how Die Meistersinger helps us to understand that essence. Maybe a Part 3. For now, I am pleased to report that Don does not see this wonderful opera as an apology for anti-Semitism, in fact in the main, quite the opposite and it is these opposites we will look at next time. Moreover, that Wagner’s personal prejudices are entirely distinguishable from a wonderful piece of art.

So, the Hammers. Finally a win! Following hot on the heels of a great point at Liverpool. Have we turned a corner? I hope so. Slav says we are a team afraid to win but that now we have done so, the players who played so fearlessly last season will we hope lose some shackles. A bit more Walther, a little less Beckmesser. The goalie position remains an issue but I would persevere with Randolph who deserves to establish himself as a Premier League and international keeper. Adrian’s fear of approaching (never mind going beyond) the six yard line is the downfall of an otherwise decent keeper. Witness when he does, it is usually in a forced and forlorn cause which inevitably costs us.

Pedro Obiang continues his calm and assured campaign for Hammer of the Year (who else?) and our summer signings continue to underwhelm.

A run of games now to put our poor, poor start to bed. Lets hope we take advantage.

Don never thought this blog would see Easter, never mind Christmas and the fact that no-one knows it exists is neither here nor there.

So if you have been, thanks for listening and have a very merry Christmas, Chanukah and whatever else flicks your switch.

COYI!

©DonnertheHammer.com 2016