Wagner beyond Good and Evil

Wagner beyond Good and Evil

Wagner beyond Good and Evil

Wagner beyond Good and Evil

Synopsis

John Deathridge presents a different and critical view of Richard Wagner based on recent research that does not shy away from some unpalatable truths about this most controversial of composers in the canon of Western music. Deathridge writes authoritatively on what Wagner did, said, and wrote, drawing from abundant material already well known but also from less familiar sources, including hitherto seldom discussed letters and diaries and previously unpublished musical sketches. At the same time, Deathridge suggests that a true estimation of Wagner does not lie in an all too easy condemnation of his many provocative actions and ideas. Rather, it is to be found in the questions about the modern world and our place in it posed by the best of his stage works, among them Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Controversy about Wagner is unlikely to go away, but rather than taking the line of least resistance by regarding him blandly as a "classic" in the Western art tradition, Deathridge suggests that we need to confront the debates that have raged about him and reach beyond them, toward a fresh and engaging assessment of what he ultimately achieved.

Excerpt

Much of this book was written after the end of the twentieth century when, as everyone knows, the world began to change with violent and very public events. It presents, I hope, a different and critical view of Richard Wagner based on new research and the conviction, which is not shared by everyone, that his works still have something to say to us. Against my own skepticism, I have been spurred on by George Bernard Shaw’s remark in the preface to the fourth edition of his book The Perfect Wagnerite, in which, after describing with devastating brevity the outcome of the First World War’s appalling series of catastrophes, he more or less confessed that he had changed his mind about Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the first edition, published at the end of the nineteenth century, he accused Wagner of a disconcerting lurch toward a plump German brand of conservatism in the course of an epic that had begun with the best revolutionary credentials. In the light of what had happened since, he now wrote, “it says much for [Wagner’s] grasp of things that his allegory should still be valid and important.”

Shaw’s point was that the social implications of the Ring in the 1920s were still intact, despite the rapid aging of some of its technical aspects. Wagner’s music dramas are still enjoying full-scale productions, indeed more than ever before, and possibly for similar reasons. Good performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde—the two pinnacles of Wagner’s achievement at the center of this book—still genuinely touch a great many people. Despite my skepticism, I do not know myself exactly why I get carried away. All I can say is that the will to present us with labyrinthine riddles about ourselves and the world we live in through the medium of opera, or rather the peculiar amalgam of allegory and myth that Wagner made from it, obviously has something to do with the abiding allure of these works.

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