Wagner, Left politics and high culture

I’ve come across a number of pieces recently about what is described as the Philistinism of the British political and media class. Writing in today’s Guardian,  Martin Kettle describes how Angela Merkel made a public appearance at the Bayreuth Festival for the new production of Wagner’s Ring, and how such an event would, he argues, be inconceivable here; meanwhile, a rather brilliant letter from an opera-going viewer to the BBC, Alexander Robinson, complaining about the way in which an interview with the opera singer Thomas Hampson was conducted, is going viral around the internet.  The points are similar – the idea that high culture, most notably classical music and opera, are elitist and only accessible to a small, culturally and financially empowered elite – is entrenched in the media and our political culture.  It lacks, it is claimed, authenticity.

And they have a point – the social pageantry around events like Glyndebourne is absolutely about rituals of exclusion (it’s ironic that Martin Kettle refers to the opening of Bayreuth, a social occasion that’s every bit as exclusive as Glyndebourne or the snootiest Royal Opera House gala).  To argue that there is no snobbery around classical music is absolute nonsense;  and there is a particularly obnoxious tendency among the empowered to pepper their language with obscure little literary and music references, accessible to insiders but telling those who lack the same hinterland that they do not belong.  A Parliamentary candidate or Councillor who tried that game would be signalling, consciously or not, that they only spoke for an empowered minority.

It’s a problem for the Left in particular.  Martin Kettle points to Lenin’s dilemma of loving Beethoven’s music.  Speaking as someone for whom classical music is a huge part of his life, the really acute dilemma arises with Wagner.  I have known and loved Wagner’s music since I was a teenager; as I have got older and lived life it has got deeper under my skin.  And, because of what Wagner is associated with, I have often had to defend my enthusiasm – how can somebody on the left defend that filthy fascist music?  The answer – that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was repellent but not untypical of his era (how many people call Chopin, whose hatred of Jews was if anything more intense than Wagner’s, for the same offence?), and that Wagner’s music was appropriated and misused by his descendants – sounds very like special pleading (anyone who is interested in some serious reading about that appropriation – and in particular how a near-bankrupt family music festival became the cultural temple of Nazism – should read Brigitte Hamann’s definitive biography of Winifred Wagner, the composer’s Hastings-born Nazi daughter-in-law).  At the same time, early commentators on Wagner – like Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite – pointed out how the Ring could be seen as a Socialist tract, with its themes of the violation of nature, the creation of brutal factory conditions and its focus on power relations.  But ultimately it’s the music that matters.

But the fact is that many composers have, one way or another, been of the left – especially in the last century.  Holst was famously a lifelong and passionate socialist – but more generally, in the post-war era, composers like Nono, Henze and Cornelius Cardew have, in diffierent ways, sought to express a radical critique of capitalist society.  Today, composers like Richard Barrett have sought to express and universalise a radical critique of society – in Barrett’s case through big eclectic works that often draw on ancient sources for their inspiration.  It’s not easy music for the uninitiated – it’s radical and rebarbative, challenging traditional constraints of sound and tonality – but it is most certainly engaged.

But actually the central point is made in Alexander Robinson’s brilliant letter:

I thoroughly enjoyed Wimbledon, despite being no athelete and not having the foggiest idea of the rules of any sport at all. I can still appreciate a good performance on Centre Court when I see one. Of course, if I did know the rules of tennis inside out I might have enjoyed Murray’s victory all the more, but it wasn’t essential to being swept up by the drama and tension of it all.Can you imagine Andy Murray being hauled in front of a hostile interviewer and asked to justify why he continues to play tennis, and by the way, why are Centre Court tickets so pricey? To take another comparison, what about the cinema? I didn’t fight for the French Resistance in North Africa, I’m not French, and was born decades too late to take part, so does this disqualify me from enjoying Casablanca? I don’t think I know any time travellers, so clearly Doctor Who is right out.In any case, everyone’s reaction to music is different, but for many people it’s a visceral, emotional response. You don’t need to be educated to have emotions, or to simply feel something when you hear music, whether it’s Berlioz or Beyonce. For those really interested in knowing more about the cultural context, opera programmes usually include a plot synopsis and all manner of details about historical, social and philosophical background – but to appreciate Don Carlo, nobody expects a PhD in the Spanish Inquisition.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that people who are members of the political class feel those emotions, but believe they cannot express them.  Ellen Wilkinson, Education Minister in Attlee’s 1945 government, talked explicitly and unashamedly about a “Third Programme” society – in which culture and ideas were available to everyone.  Now there are huge issues about whose ideas – debate then, as now, was largely about a Western canon which largely – though not entirely – expressed the cultural outlook of a privileged minority;  but the point remains that as alternative views develop, they should still be accessible.  The way in which the Coalition is retreating into a Victorian view that education in anything other than the functional basics necessary to get a job is the preserve of an empowered elite is one of its most obnoxious ideological preoccupations.

To return to Martin Kettle’s piece, and to Wagner – the irony of opera as elite entertainment is often underestimated. Take, for example, the first piece in the Ring cycle, the preliminary evening, Das Rheingold.  Strip away the Norse apparatus of Gods, giants, dwarfs and so on, and you have a very contemporary plot; Wotan, the head God, has completed his Valhalla grand project but does not have the means to pay for it without theft.  He steals the Ring from the dwarf Alberich, who has himself stolen the gold from which it is formed from the Rheinmaidens, symbols of primitive nature, after renouncing love.  Wotan visits Alberich’s subterranean factory empire and seizes the Ring to pay for his HQ building; Alberich curses it.  In the final scene of the opera, Wotan summons the Gods to enter their new home, against a paean of sonorous major-key brass, and is seized by his next grand plan – to get the ring back from the one remaining Giant, Fafner, who has already killed his brother to get the gold.  Loge, god of fire, Wotan’s pet fixer and sidekick, realises that the Gods are already doomed and sings acidly (lots of slithering chromatic harmonies that must have sounded extraordinary in 1869) about their folly in luxuriating in their grandeur.  Up from below comes the song of the Rheinmaidens – singing mournfully for their stolen gold in exquisite, pain-laden harmony that arrests the Gods’ progress; Wotan orders Loge to shut them up and Loge taunts them – never mind the gold, your inheritance: look at the glory of your new ruling class instead.  Finally Wotan leads the Gods over the bridge into Valhalla but where the music was once warm and sonorous it’s now noisy and empty, as the curtain falls.

Just eight minutes of music. But it’s about as powerful a metaphor as one can find for the human and natural destruction implicit in capitalist power relations.  Imagine being Angela Merkel – or even George Osborne, who is reputed to be a Wagner fan – sitting through this, perhaps unwittingly seeing everything they stand for eviscerated on the stage.


4 thoughts on “Wagner, Left politics and high culture

  1. One of the defining characteristics of art is that expresses things which can’t otherwise be expressed. Lenin’s mistake was to imagine that the Appassionata could somehow be understood within the same framework as his political beliefs. It can’t.

    And that’s why I can’t buy your idea that the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, “just eight minutes of music” is “about as powerful a metaphor as one can find for the human and natural destruction implicit in capitalist power relations”. That sort of translation is impossible, as Lenin found to his distress.

    • I have to agree with Churm. There are numerous interpretations of the Ring and what makes the experience so rich for me is precisely that no one seems to explain it all. The work is one of the most protean ever created and one can always therefore come to it and find new things there. Hope your biking accident injuries are healing.

  2. Just one other thing worth adding. Not all apparent anti capitalism (especially the 19thC variety) is “progressive” in any meaningful leftist sense. It can as easily be a manifestation of reactionary anti modernity – often combined with is twin sister – anti semitism. That this seems to fit Wagner, at least to an extent (again as you know Neil, I am a huge fan of the music if not the man) should give one pause before attributing a left progressive message to Wagner’s work. There certainly are interpretaions of the Ring that suggest it is indeed a protest against not capitalism as such but the modernising influence of science and industry itself – a kind of “back to nature” message which should be familiar to even a former Green (sorry about that!!)

  3. Pingback: Reclaiming Elgar from the Right | Notes from a Broken Society

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