Tag Archives: wagner

the elitist within us all

i hate the Romantic period. aside from philosophy and poetry (which i’ll love in any period), the notion of the Romantic aesthetic bothers me. the great genius that is the soul of the artist which allows for creativity on a massive scale that MUST be released? and of course, the later concept of artist as hero. save it.

but there is one aspect that intrigues me. the notion of universality is a cumbersome one but one that is bandied about in regards to music on a regular basis. in the 19th century, this universality acts as double edged rapier. while all of us are able to appreciate art, not all of us are able to create. how indulgent! i can create but you can’t? this is the backbone of the Romantic aesthetic. but is this true? and is it important to think so?

i wasn’t sure to write about this because, at the time, i was in my Berlioz class talking directly about this subject. so, big deal, of course we mention it when dealing with Berlioz and his ilk. but then this idea of music as universal, shared but not created collectively, came up two more times during my day: once during my Mahler 4 rehearsal and again during colloquium. and what was central to both those utterances is the idea of elitism. the best music is created by elitists that, therein, creates its own elitist class of composers. now don’t get me wrong, this is not classism in the sense of the rungs found within today’s classical music audience. this is the separation of gods from mortals, to put it Romantically.

if you don’t think your music is special, so special that it speaks to the whole of humanity but could only do so through the imbuing of your vision, why would anyone listen to it? why do we listen to music in the first place? we give music monikers and adjectives like ‘transcendental’, placing upon the genre of music a burden, albeit an abstract one, to connect us to something. the best music does so. (note, that qualitative term is to prove a point. i’m not here to start an argument about what “best” means.) now this idea about what music should do has existed for as long as music has. but it was not until the Romantic era that people decided to do something about it. the composer moves from the role of craftsman (like Bach) to genius (like Wagner). the plight of the composer/artist is the plight of mankind focused. the way to survive through the miasma is to create and reflect. and as mankind is blessed with the gift of imagination, so is the artist.

here’s the rub. music acts as universal exactly because the spark to create, the ability to imagine lies within every person. we understand music because it is our own plight being reflected through the light of the Romantic lamp, the vision of the artist, who can do so like no other.

i do not like this. i especially do not like the word “universal”. i have been taught, as of recently, that “universal” is a four-letter word (just like if i say “the composer’s intentions”, i’ll get my hand chopped off). that and the idea of owning creativity, hoarding it, just doesn’t seem kosher. doesn’t seem fair. but let’s face it, those who had the ability to be elitist in the 19th century, either financially or artistically, did. wouldn’t you? i don’t blame Berlioz. he was a hyper-everything, a product of his time. but i’m glad the artistic hero has gone the way of the dodo. granted, it took two world wars to do it but, hey, we are dealing with the whole universe.

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intersession days two & three [AKA laugh at my jokes!]

i think the most insightful things i could learn from this class are really about me and my capacity to make this my future. with each passing class, i become a little more relaxed and i try not to carry my stored anxiety about imparting knowledge. it’s difficult but getting better.

i felt bad for my students on wednesday because we spent the first half of the class talking about Wagner and his impact on drama. not what they were expecting, but they seemed to latch on to the complex ideas of integration theory and the Aristotelian orders of time. it’s funny because i have to keep reminding myself to “un-complicate” things — there is no reason why any of these students should be concerned with Neue Sachlichkeit — and try to let them know that while i know they are intelligent enough to understand these concepts when explained, all they need to do is be familiar with them. then i usually make some wisecrack about German being a debbie downer and we all relax.

the discussion on minstrelsy was probably the most frank we’ve had with the most participants while still being a little hesitant. but the comments that got to me the most were those about seeing artists with whom they were familiar (Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, et al.) under this new guise of blackface and how shocking it was to them. as someone who’s grown up with these films, that’s a reaction that is new to me and it was really nice to talk about it.

i think teachers dread their first monday and first fridays. as a student, i understand what those days are like (the word is awful) and today was no exception. i had a bunch of absences, of which i was aware, but those who came looked like they had been hit with mack trucks. i’m so glad i started with Gershwin — something about recounting the plots of Strike Up The Band and Let ‘Em Eat Cake out loud that always leads to hilarity. and then came the break. during the break, i asked if they were enjoying the class and apologized for beating them over the heads with a LOT of terminology. this led to a really spirited discussion about experiences in the theatre, what we like and don’t like and everyone laughed and shared. i was really surprised — it gave me the opportunity to get a little more personal. they enjoyed my Der Freischütz wolf call story and i didn’t know people could get so caught up in Beauty and the Beast the musical. the second half of class which started with Brecht was surprisingly rowdy, though i loathed having to talk about & describe things like non-Aristotelian drama and Gestus. turns out, many of them were familiar with Weill, partially because actor and Writing Seminars faculty member John Astin apparently talks about Die Dreigroschenoper almost every day.

(and yes, i mean that John Astin.)

in any case, the class enjoyed listening to a little Lotte Lenya and watching clips from the LA Opera’s 2008 production of Mahagonny, more than i could have expected. i didn’t finish my lecture, got started with Blitzstein but let them loose to finish it on monday and i was incredibly pleased.

i have to remind myself of what it feels like to be in their shoes, i mean, i should know. it’s just as hard to be a student sometimes and i don’t want to ask too much of them. as long as they get one thing out of this, then i’ve succeeded. unless that one thing is about Wagner because then, well, i’ve pretty much failed.

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intersession: day one [AKA wits, skits & tits]

this was it. today was the first day of my intersession class, The History of the Musical and my anxiety about teaching was amplified by my returning home to baltimore sunday night only to find that the water in my bathroom pipes had frozen solid. luckily, that issue had a very straightforward solution but it raised my heart rate. i got to my classroom early to get all of the A/V stuff together (it worked but my projector’s color scheme is off and everything is purple?) and survey the landscape. one by one, students came in, unsure of what they were walking into…

the class maxed out at 21 people, a great number. i did my introduction and had everyone go around and say their names, their major and why they wanted to take the class. i got some surprising answers. many had theatre/dance backgrounds, many knew nothing about musicals and the class interested them and many just like to watch musicals. i didn’t know people still did that in this day and age. after the intros, i told everyone to stand up and push all of the chairs to the side. that can only mean one thing…THEATER GAME. thanks to the sound advice of my colleagues, i picked machine to do on the first day. i put everyone in groups of four (myself included) and each group had to form a machine with their bodies, sounds and all while the other groups guessed. they seemed rather into and came up with some great ideas. when i proposed the idea of doing one every class, they responded with a resounding yes. i think it was this that broke the ice for me.

after that, class was standard fare. i think my lesson plan was cohesive, they asked a few questions and responded to the few questions i had for them. i feel the first class will always have hangups as they have no material assigned beforehand so i didn’t let it bother me that i was doing most of the the talking. i felt bad that i was assigning Wagner’s “Art and Revolution” to read for the next class (and told them so) but you know, such is academia.

i’m not sure why this post is as colloquial as it is, possibly because it’s 12:43 in the morning or because the only way i can relate this story, at the moment, is from a place of pure giddiness. over the course of the next three weeks, i hope to learn a lot about myself as a teacher and as a student. maybe the next few classes will be a little more revelatory.

wednesday’s class is “Wagnerian form and the Early Musical” and “The Continuation and Effects of Minstrelsy” about which i am very excited. that might be the first time in my musicological career where “excited” and “Wagner” appear in the same sentence.

and because i fouled up and didn’t show my dance clip of the day in class, here it is for all of you..a little Fred and Ginger, the best way to start a semester.

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from the archives: “i choose to mourn the artist.”

here is an entry from my personal blog the little lion written earlier this fall, entitled, “i choose to mourn the artist”, a sort of conglomeration of feelings regarding the passing of michael jackson and musings on problems of art versus artist. it belongs here, though i wrote it before this blog existed and it’s a good way to finish the “Music in Crisis” section i’ve been dealing with in MH4. hope you guys like wagner.


it would be completely unnecessary for me to rehash the last seven-day news cycle for you, so i won’t. i will say, however, that all of the talk, on TV, in the streets and online has caused me to take a hard look at michael jackson and not just that but our artist culture. the title of this blog came from an incredibly inspiring comment found on, of all places, livejournal’s favorite gossip community, Oh No They Didn’t!. to summarize, the comment stated that we have to make a choice whether to mourn the person or mourn the artist in their passing. but why are we forced to make this choice? well, because doing one is not as simple as doing another. to mourn michael jackson the person means mourning all of the baggage that comes with him: the prescription drugs, the weird behavior, the loss of childhood, the possible molestation, etc. and let’s just say that makes most people uncomfortable, let alone reverent. mourning the artist is much easier: recognizing the genius of someone who was able to create music that has stood the test of (pop) time and influenced, touched and inspired so many people across the world for so many years. now for many, the existence of the “person” just gets too much in the way of the “artist” and we come back to square one. what to do? ah, if only there were other instances like this…

Gesamtkunstwerk
wagner is not a subject easily broached in musical academia. the study of wagner is fraught with problems: do we read wagner’s prose? how do we address works such as Die Meistersinger and Parsifal? do we acknowledge the effect of wagner post-wagner and, if so, do we speak of it musically, extra-musically or both? but no matter how you slice it, it’s always staring you in the face (unless you’re a wagnerite and choose to ignore it, which i do not recommend). this dilemma stared at me earlier this spring when one of my colloquia centered around Die Meistersinger and the ideal man. when discussing the opera, the question arose: do we say that the work is filled with musical subtleties, poignant and witty or is it all about “the jews”? for many in the class, it was hard to reconcile themselves especially after watching scenes from the opera and having the “jew” problem be pointed out. you would laugh at one part, which was admittedly funny, staged well, witty and humorous and then someone would say “but he’s caricaturizing and denegrating jews!” and then you feel bad. but on the side you say, “well that was still kind of funny and brilliantly sung”. wagner’s feelings towards jews (along with frenchmen, britons, christians and those trying to destroy art) is well known. the part its plays in his musical creations is more problematic. the point of all of this is, how can we respect and admire someone with such racial hatred and vitriol and someone so easily co-opted by the like of the third reich? for some there is no respect and admiration. from its founding and inception, the nation of israel has made it illegal to perform wagner’s music within its borders. there is no separating the “person” from the “artist”. but for others, myself included, it’s not that easy. and though it might not be as pertinent to some and may seem blasphemous to others, like wagner, the tale of the two michael jacksons are os strong, each, on their own, that it seems impossible to ignore one for the other.

anyone in musical scholarship who tells you that they have a definitive point of view on wagner is lying to you. my dealings with jewish musicians, scholars and performers who tell me about the utter disdain they have for wagner don’t seem to have completely closed the book on him, meaning, they are still willing to discuss him. and again, it’s never about the music. they have every right to their opinion as does anyone else. for me, i’m always conflicted about wagner and i’m actually happy about that because i am constantly rethinking my feelings about music in general.

Mein liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir…
thinking about all of this also made me think of someone in whom i have invested a lot of time researching, benjamin britten. in my dealings with many, it seems that britten’s relationship with young boys may have overshadowed the genius of his music. a dear friend of mine had the privilege to work with britten as a young boy, singing as a male alto in premieres/performances of works such as the War Requiem and Noye’s Fludde. in talking with me, he explained how pained he was that, when recounting his stories to others, the first thing they ask is “did britten have an inappropriate relationship with you/did he ever touch you” or make some kind of snarky comment. he loved his time working with britten and his ilk and he calls it one of the greatest musical experiences of his life but feels like he can’t share how much these events have shaped him because of this. whenever this discussion arises, he becomes very defensive. for those who aren’t aware of this part of the composer’s history, britten struggled for quite some time with his need to be surrounded by teenage boys. to him, they were an inspiration and “boy as inspiration/muse/representation of another life” appears in many of britten’s operas: Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw and, most notably, Death in Venice. these muses represent the part of britten’s life that britten was reticent to leave behind. ahead of him were the adult representations of life that britten had trouble acknowledging: an adult relationship with partner peter pears, dealing professionally with those who stood by him and cared about his well-being, etc. auden, who collaborated with britten on some of his most well known works, wrote in a letter to britten that he needed to forgo these relationships with boys. it was shortly after britten received this letter that britten did what he did to so many before: he dissolved his ties with the poet (it should also be known that auden also encouraged britten to reconcile himself with his homosexuality, another adult aspect of britten’s life with which the composer had great difficulty).

the role that these relationships play in the creation of britten’s music is undeniable. and it is worth asking the question whether or not some of these works would have even existed with out them. again, the separation between the man and the artist is difficult. while there is no proof and no real allegations that britten ever did anything illicit with any of these boys, the rumors still remain and cast a cloud over his musical achievements. is it on the scale of the molestation charges placed before michael jackson? most likely not but the comparison remains. in my scholarship of britten, this question will always arise no matter how much i choose to focus on the music and i am faced with the decision of whether or not to deal with it. while i feel this adds a fascinating layer of depth to him, for many, its more of a hinderance.

Epilogue
now is the accusation of molesting boys as bad as a glaring hatred for others? for some, yes. for some this behavior is irreconcilable. for some, no matter how genius the music, no matter how large the impact, there is just no getting around this. the personal acts of one’s life can sometimes, and often, get in the way of one’s contributions to society. yet for some reason, artists never seem to be forgiven. for great political figures who have committed indiscretion after indiscretion in their personal lives, history forgives. however, the good that art does, the way it changes and shapes our lives, the profound impact it has seems to not be enough to forgive any artist, no matter how great. is that because the lives of our great geniuses are filled with so much turmoil and discrepancy? people tend to forget that these all-too-human failings motivate genius. are their actions excusable? most likely not. does revering that genius mean that we have ignore, forgo and block out those actions? not by any means. if anything, it is the human element that gives insight to the creative one. i don’t know whether or not “man” and “artist” can ever be separated or if they should. michael jackson’s loss of childhood and indescribable young life motivated him to write the music that is not only biographical for him but has proven to be biographical for so many, so many without childhoods, for those who have felt lost and alone and for those who have just experienced any type of hardship in their lives. wagner’s view on total art pushed him to create works unlike anything that had been seen up to that point and just like the end of Götterdammerung, the fiery demise of the musical gods of the pan-austrian empire in the destruction that was the end of WWII, paved the way (unbeknownst to wagner) for a new musical rebirth. the struggle between childhood and adulthood, what one wants and what one realizes, our dreams and our base nature manifested itself in the darkness of britten’s most autobiographical operas and allowed for a new direction in opera, one that is being, slowly but surely, rediscovered. i am saddened that these human elements have taken over and claimed the lives of those who lived and experienced them. i, for one, ask that we not forget the music, for it is important. but what i really ask, of all of those who encounter this dilemma, is to let the music and the life speak for themselves, and after considering both of these things, that you make your decision or at least try to. don’t ever let it be as simple as choosing between the “man” and the “artist” because, in reality, those two things are never really separate. they are a part of each other and need each other to survive.

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unfortunately, i can’t work without conductors.

yesterday in mh4’s class on music in Nazi Germany, we had the pleasure of watching two fantastic clips of Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. besides learning about his orchestral conducting style, he has only come up in my life twice, and it is for those two times that i will always think of him:

1) this history 4 class
2) when the Peabody bassoon studio went to our teacher’s house for a holiday party, played musical charades and my team spent seven minutes trying to guess our “thing”. i finally guessed “Wilhelm Furtwängler” which was the answer. i never forgave my teacher for that.

however, his interpretations of Beethoven and Wagner are worth noting. while Wagner and i have a love/hate relationship, i can be persuaded to listen, especially if what i’m listening to is Die Meistersinger.

today in music and lit, the very venerable and very french Pierre Monteux reared his head out from the lofty pages of Mann’s Doctor Faustus and i was compelled to make a connection between him and Furtwängler. while i could (there is an, albeit, later video of Monteux also conducting the prelude to Die Meistersinger) we talked about Stravinsky (Monteux’s tenure with Le Sacre and Mann’s allusion to L’histoire) so Stravinsky it is. but before Petrouchka, my non-musical association with Monteux.

1) this music and lit class
2) the pierre monteux school in maine that one of my best friends attended. it was there that she met the person that she would introduce to me later that year, who, would become my boyfriend. he, too, is a conductor. (thus continueith the cycle.)

sorry to keep you waiting, here’s Monteux conducting Stravinsky’s Petrouchka with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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invasively quaint

Nobody can know himself

or be separated from himself

But let him every day test what

should be clear:

What he is and what he was

What he can and what he may.

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1796)

 

how do you prepare (young) students to deal with questions like what do we do with Strauss or Wagner, or, what does music mean, if anything, or (even better), can we separate the music from its creator? it was an attempt, or more than an attempt, at a good try today in history 4. i could see the looks on faces (somewhat preoccupied from the results of their midterm) and they revealed brains ticking away behind their usually cheery visages. they were thinking. that’s not in italics because they haven’t thought before. it’s in italics because they really began to think about music as a concept, as a problem, as something that can come with real repercussions. 

and that is exactly the kind of thinking i like.

soon this section on “music in crisis” will be over and things can get a little bit back to normal (britten is included in this but it’s not so much crisis as me talking about how i’m getting a Peter Grimes-inspired tattoo) and until the britten fun times, i’ll end this the way we ended the class (and the way i started this entry), with Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan).

 

 

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