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Wagner (Leipzig 1813 -  Venezia 1883)

Richard Wagner has been a constant companion in my life, the man as well as his work (music and writings).  He is one of many such companions, and not the only one from history (John Henry Newman is another). These are well known to all my companions who are alive.
         Wagner has been the my musical inspirations besides Bach, as described in my entry A musical Life.  The two appeared almost simultaneously, Bach opening the ear and making Wagner a possibility.  The two are extreme opposites, but belong together, as explained elsewhere.  His works became known to me in early life and have been a source of inexhaustible joy and neverending bliss, as has the work of Bach, but on a  different scale.  They coinhabit in my inner life, all other composers are secondary to these two, many as they are.
         In this article I shall try to say something about why and how Wagner stands next to Bach in my musical consciousness.  It is not an easy task, and the temptative nature of what follows will be evident on every page.  But before I know what I think, I must see what I write - so here we go.
Wagners operas are each of them a world of its own, apart from everything else, a creation where figures and musical themes are unique to each single work.  The “sound” in Tristan is definitely different from the sounds of Parsifal, Siegfried, Lohengrin and the others.  A Wagner night at the opera is a an encounter with magic of a particular kind, due to the special way the composer treats his subjects, invests them in Leitmotifs and symphonic geniality.  No other opera composer has achieved such a result, even if many of them wrote immortal works in their own right. 
         As a result of his tecnique there is a depth, a profondeur, in Wagners orchestra which transports us out of the mere scenic world and into the mystique of absolute music.  But this is never achieved through absolute means alone, as with Bach, only by means of the theatre.  This makes the case of Wagner special, for never before or after has such a great composer been the prisoner of the stage.  Beethoven visited the stage - with Fidelio - and with enormous success, but this was a once-and-for-all achievement.  Wagner lives on the stage, his music is stage music, and still it belongs to the sphere of  absolute music in more than one respect.  Vivaldi and Haendel also wrote for the stage, but not only, far from it. 
         Why this is so in the case of Wagner, we shall leave out at the moment and concentrate on the result of his work.  We shall therefore concentrate on the question: what does he do with us through the medium of his characters?  And even more: what does he want to achieve through the means of the stage?
         The answer  lies in the music he clothes his characters in.
The Dutchman receives his immortality through Wagner’s music, as do Tristan and Parsifal, even Siegfried.  They could have been portayed by composers of lesser genius, but what would they then stand for - a theatrical bracket, a footnote in musical history?  Indeed, others have set Wagner’s poems (his libretti) to music, but the result is never performed.
         The saying that Wagner is Shakespeare plus Beethoven bears much thruth.  But the point in question is that Wagner is the only one who could combine such titanic efforts, due to his gifts as musician.   The result is his eternal cohabitation with Bach.  Bach was just in the process of being rediscovered in Wagners day, not at least thanks to Mendelssohn, so the equation would not speak to Wagner himself as it does to us.  But he is unlikely to have been offended by the suggestion since he immatriculated at the Thomas School and studied with Theodor Weinlig.  He would have been bewildered rather than offended. 
         Those of us who have had the fortune to make the acquaintance of Wagner’s heroes are not likely to see them depart from our conscious and subconscious life.  Alberich’s fatal choice,Wotan’s tragedy, Brunhildes heroism, Siegfried’s childishness, Hagen’s hatred and Fafner’s avarice have become part of our cultural inheritance, as has Mime’s deviousness, Siegmund’s courage, Gunter’s weakness, Gutrunes misery and all the rest.
Even more: they have become part of our own selfunderstanding and our interpretation of the wourld around us.   We know today that the theft of the gold of nature is catastrophic for life on earth, especially when there is constant war going on over black gold and when northern governments empty the seabeds of its immense resources.  This causes us to reflect on Wagner’s Ring.
         For the Ring has never been so relevant as today.  And it was conceived as a piece of political protest.  Who can in truth be witness to the drama on stage before us without shivering at the similar situation awaiting us outside?  The Ring is so much more than a key to the revolutions of our European past - it is a parable of our own present and future.  Alberich’s gold is in the earth of the Middle East and at the bottom of the North Sea.  It is as simple as that.  I doubt that we shall have to wait long for a production that will take us to the bottom of  the Nordic coasts and the sands of Irak.
         Of course the world as we know it is hastening towards its end - we see to it ourselves.  Alberich and Wotan is the key to a neverending drama on earth.  The Ring will forever be a contemporary drama, for Wagner’s Ring coexists with every political and historical crisis.  It is therefore also capable of demasking Hitler and his Niebelungen.  The reason he liked watching Wagner on stage is because he thougt that he saw himself on stage.  But little did he realise what he really saw.  And the work that puts this question directly to him, Parsifal, made him feel uncomfortable, to say the least.
         Wagner’s Ring is the story of Alberich’s ring, forever contemporary with human life on earth.  Only in the world to come will the tragic dimension be dissolved into harmony, for ever and ever, as is suggested in the last bars of the whole drama, the final chords of Gotterdammerung.  That is why it cannot be reduced to a drama about the past or to the world of fairy-tales.  To make a mere theatrical history of Wagners Ring, as a piece of the past, is a crime against art that cannot be forgiven.  The Nazi interpretation was a way of doing this, among other things, so the Ring destroyed them at the end.  In our world after the war Wagners Ring has become a symbol of hope, an expression of belief in the future of man - if we are willing to see and listen to what the Ring wants to tell us. The Tolkien trilogy is doing the same on a more popular level, less psychologically, more faity-tale-like. 
         Wagner’s ring has come to stay with us for a very long time, unless it will be forbidden by authocrats who understand and fear its inner meaning and who are more clever than Hitler.  Wagner’s Ring will probably survive such monsters as well.  It has the innate capcity of being interpreted in a new way in every new performance.  And so it should.  The Ring cannot stand still, it follows the history of mankind as a curse and a threat. 
Tristan will also survive, but of quite different reasons.
         In Tristan we are really dealing with different facets of two persons only, perhaps only one.   Everything takes place on the interior level; the exterior world is there, but as a threat that slowly becomes irrelevant.  The characters are few, but very closely interrelated, so closely that they overlap.  For Melot and Marke are more than just friends of Tristan’s.  They are aspects of his own life: his bosom friend Melot (possibly lover - another self) and his royal super-ego king Marke.  The whole drama centers round these persons in Tristan while Isolde has a more unified nature.  Brangaene and Kurvenal are more peripheral, even if necessary, the former less than the latter.  
         And why are they important to us?
         The answer I simple: the drama is doing one thing only - uncovering the truth of our identity lived as emotional lives, hard as they are to face.  All that happens is that reality finally becomes real.  And this cannot pass without paying a price for it to be.  Schopenhauer provides most of the philosophical framework for the libretto, and most commentators comment that Tristan is all about applying his famous Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung to the stage, in light of  the composeres recent and frustrated platonic love affair with Mathilde Wesendonk. 
         But this analysis leaves the music out of consideration, for it is on themusical level that the drama is vested in enormous artistic dimensions.  Indeed, this work is so revolutionary in its musical language that it changed the course of music in our entire cultural hemisphere, according to modern opinion.  Be that as it may, the listener does not come to the opera house in order to speculate about the run of European musical tradition.  A night with Tristan offers other insights.  And the point about these is that by moving inward into the persons in Tristan and outward to his relationship with Isolde we are reaching a point where we are devastated by our own emotional complexity. 
         In order to solve this dilemma for his listeners Wagner needs the help of Schopenhauer, as can be demonstrated.  But the truth about his philosophical mentor is that he was in life as distant from renouncing will and love as was his composer disciple.  To make too much of Schopenhauer in this context is to miss the point.  The different persons in Tristan is what the drama is about, and the one person to take the place of all three of them is Isolde.  That is the reason why the others must die or fade away.
         Isolde is accordingly the only person left on stage.  She is alone with a Tristan who has died to his other personalities and therefore is dying himself.  This Tristan she wants so much that she dies herself, this is the only way to be with him.  In a way the play ends with an empty stage and with silence after all the music.
         What people in the audience want to do with it all, is a matter to be decided by their own lives.  Surely, we have been witness to something terrible as well as tragic, but in the end it turns out to be blissfull.  And the key to such an interpretation is the music, as was the case with the Ring.  No other composer could possibly have set this kind of drama on a level that is as immortal as the love of Tristan and Isolde itself.  It is a classical drama we have been initiated into, and the music is precisely what makes it timeless.  Considered as absolute music this is far surpassing most of what has gone before. 
         Tristan the man dies, because he has to.  Tristan the opera cannot die, due to its innate dimensions.  The similarity to the Ring is obvious, but so is the difference.  The Ring is about our relationship to the outer world while Tristan is all about the inner one.  Both deal with truth in the Greek sense, but on a level that is too psychologically true to be mere mythology.

Parsifal is a different sort of drama altogether, but not quite. 
         Here we are again facing the truth about our emotional lives, but in a context where truth is more than interior dispositions - it is set in a religious context.  Parsifal is about religious emotions, true and false, holy and unholy.  Human life is taken up into the sphere of adoration and sanctification, but the dilemma is: what to adore?  What is there to renounce in order to worship in a spiritual way?
         The Fool in Christ is the answer, and a traditional one.  But for Wagner this fool is in a pointed way fighting the flesh, as all the mystics and saints befor him.  Parsifal is precisely that: a catholic mystic and saint, Der reine Tor, but in the way Wagner sees him.  He reflects the composers long and tormented life with love, temptrations and passions.  He sums up so much of every human life that he brings us back to the primordial state of our own being, a state of blessed innocence, that which Siegfried could not attain to (or could he?). 
         Parsifal is an attempt on Wagners part to become a saint himself - life is short, time is running out, he has to concentrate all his effort to reach the goal which is redemption.  Being Wagner he has to do this by way of the stage.  He has tried before, many times, for his heros are all saints: senta, Elsa, Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Brynhilde.  But they were women, and Wagner is a man.  So he has to create a male redeemer before he dies. 
         That is why Parsifal is a complex drama, because Wagner himself is complex.  And this particular drama is more like to the drama of Wagner’s own life than the previous ones.
         For Parsifal has to undo much about himself with the help of others, say the knights.  But the person who finally redeems the redeemer in him is a woman.  Parsifal is more than the opposite of Klingsor.  He is a supreme example of the truth that the whole is greater than the sum of all the parts.  Redeeming Kundry is his own redemption at the end.  Kundry is the one who makes Parsifal the new king of the sickly brotherhood, not Titurel, not Amfortas, not the good and wise Gurnemanz.  The opposite of  Parsifal is not Klingsor but Amfortas. 
         Again we are faced with the different persons in Parsifal, for he is not without complications, like Siegfried and unlike Lohengrin.  But since this is a religious drama we expect a different kind of redemption than the one we know from the Ring and from Tristan.  Schopenhauer is still present, but more so is the Christ of Christian faith (something that Nietzsche immediately detected).  But Wagner wants to move inside his Christ in the way only he dared to do: the uncover the depths of his love and the price he had to pay for it.
         Empathy is therefore the answer, the only possible one - compassion in latin.  Love’s way goes through compassion, for all living beings, animals as humans.  For suffering is the very mode of existence here below, and in need of redemption.  Compassion is the dimention that enlightens man, makes him a knowing being, and this knowledge makes him redeemer to others because only knowledge redeemed by compassion equals love for others.  But love without knowledge is as impossible as is true knowledge without initial compassion in the case of all suffering.  And the root of this compassion itself lies in purity.
         But Purity in Parsifal is a complex symbol.  The exterior manifestation of this disposition is an expression of an interior one, one which comes first.  The different persons in the boy Parsifal meet and make him whole, but aided by Kundry, just like the case was with Tristan.  Kundry is in a way more at the centre of the drama than Parsifal himself.  He ends up baptising her, a Jewess, as Wagner wanted for all Jews.
         This contibution to Christian theology is Wagners own, and it is his swan song, his farewell to this world, a world full of suffering and illusions, of injustice and drama,      of broken loves and forgotten hopes.   What makes it work as a sacral piece is, again, the music.  Here is a kind of oratorio in the form of classical drama.  At the same time the music is so distinctly human, so non-objective and non-platonic as possible.  We are as far removed from the language of Bach as we are in Tristan.  The music reveals to us the reality of what words like compassion, knowing, love and redemption mean.  And that music comes to us from below, not from above - from inside Wagner, not from outside him.

These are my own reflections on aspects of Wagner’s work.  We could continue our journey through all the worlds he created, but this will suffice for our purposes.  Wagner’s different worlds speak directly to us, not because if their imagery, but because of his music.  Humans, animals, gods, dwarfs, giants, slaves, kings, pagans, Christians, lovers and haters, friends and betrayers - they all function in their role, in a way quite unique in the world of opera.  Only a great composer could make all this real, but then Wagner was.  His plots and poems (as he called his libretti) are in themselves not enough to work the magic, not even the original stagings, perhaps specially not them.   The music is the key to it all.     
         That is why Wagner’s works have developed with time, matured is perhaps a better word.  It is not surprising to find that the modern theatre has invaded our opera houses and seen to it that scenic art never can become a thing of the past, museumlike, so to speak.  This is particularly true of Wagner’s work.  For it is getting ever more difficult to find a production that confronts us with an original setting (I have seen some, but this was the exception from the rule).  Wagner’s work is most susceptible to the challenges of the modern theater since it is so psychological in its nature and because the real action lies in the orchestra. 
         It has simply become impossible to relativize Wagner’s work by making it static and immutable, a fossile, a thing of the past.  This is due to its peculiarly psychological nature and the power of the music.  The original staging would, in the Ring above all, destract us to an extent that made the intended experience impossible.  The music itself lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, since the real drama is ultimately taking place in the orchestral pit, the voices often coming along as an accompaniment and not the other way round.  This was certainly not intended by the composer.  His was a preoccupation with the words.  But the result is sometimes the contrary: Ring ohne Worte, Tristan ohne Worte witness to a tendancy to transcend the stage and make Wagner’s music absolute, almost like Bach’s. 
         Bach the Platonist and Wagner the Tragedian meet in a strange sort of way: church and theatre convey absolute truths on a deeper level, on the level of symbols, figures and meanings that normally elude us.  Bachs music can never be made visible, but neither can Wagner’s in the end.  Many find the highest outcome during Wagner nights by closing their eyes and become transformed to pure ear, the difficult art of simple listening.  Does Wagner’s orchestra really need a stage?  He sometimes made remarks that reveal how he realised this paradox himself, especially while rehersing the Ring at Bayreuth. 
         Wagner therefore transcends the theatre, just as Bach’s music transcends instruments and become music pure and simple. 

His musical output outside the operas is rather disappointing, with a few notable exceptions.  His piano music could have been written by anybody, and his songs by many contemporaries.  His orchestral music, such as it is, would never have been performed had it not been for the operas.  When we listen to occational music by Wagner it is only because we know the masterpieces that form the backbone of his artistic life.
         And what a life!
         We cannot follow its many ups and downs here, that will better be treated as a  topic for an independent link.  But visiting the places, the citites, where he lived and worked has been part of my search for Wagner and will be dealt with below

Aage Olav Johannes Kristoffer Leonard Lund Hauken.

Born in Bergen 02.09.1947

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