Monday, May 28, 2012

Enchanted realms in the Bohemian woods: Wagner on Weber

One of my favorite works of the late 20th century is a symphony by John Adams, an orchestral triptych called Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson). The title is a reference to a book by Schoenberg on his “theory of harmony.” The first movement was inspired by a dream set near the composer’s northern California home. Crossing the “San Francisco Bay Bridge,” the composer writes (in his engaging autobiography, Hallelujah Junction), “I looked out to see a huge oil tanker sitting in the water. As I watched, it slowly rose up like a Saturn rocket and blasted out of the bay and into the sky. I could see the rust-colored metal oxide of its hull as it took off.”

Composers have long remarked on the mysterious power of dreams and visions as sources of inspiration. Elsewhere I have quoted from the composer Jonathan Harvey’s excellent book on this subject, Music and Inspiration. It should not be surprising to learn about such colorful dreams coming from the composer of the vivid and original operas, Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic.

The second movement of Harmonielehre is a brooding adagio called “The Anfortas Wound.” This Mahlerian elegy references the “sacred wound” in the thigh of the Grail Knight around which Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal revolves. While Wagner and Adams would not appear to have much in common, their attraction to medieval legends and their shared mystical bent proves at least one strong connection.

The final movement of Harmonielehre was also inspired by a dream. The enigmatic title, “Meister Eckhart and Quackie” links the hermetic philosopher and the nickname of Adams’s daughter (who made “a funny, ducklike noise” as a baby). The dream consisted “of a single image: the medieval mystic floating in space and carrying on his shoulder, like a blithe and gentle homunculus, our fourth-month old daughter, Emily.”

Adams joins a shortlist of composers whose prose – if frequently inflated – is often engaging. Berlioz was one, and among others, Wagner is a writer whose criticism is capable of remarkable flight and picturesque color. His essay on Weber’s romantic opera, Der Freischütz is a great read. It reveals as much about its author as it does his subject. Der Freischütz is considered the greatest of early 19th century German operas. Wagner admired it immensely and it was an important influence on his developing style. Equally important for Wagner was its authentically “German” character. In Weber’s wind- and brass- rich orchestration, his dispensation of recitatives (in favor of “Singspiel” dialogue), and his move away from the “number opera” to an opera of scenes, he anticipates Wagner. This distinction from the prevailing fads of Italian Bel canto opera and French grand opera is nearly as important as Weber’s score for the “truly German” composer of “authentic music dramas” Wagner claimed himself to be. The essay was written for an 1841 Paris production to be conducted by none other than Berlioz, one of the few French musicians for whom Wagner had high praise. Here is Wagner’s opening salvo:

"In the heart of the Bohemian Forest, old as the world, lies the ‘Wolfsschlucht’; its legend lingered till the Thirty Years War, which destroyed the last trace of German grandeur; but now, like many another boding memory, it has died out from the folk.”

In this initial sentence, Wagner has offered a world of information. Most apparent is the emphasis on “German grandeur” and the collective loss of connection to these folk legends that say so much about a people and its culture. What may be less obvious to the uninitiated is the mystical “secret history” behind the reference to the “Wolf’s Glen” in the Bohemian Forest.

The Thirty Years War saw both the climax and the quashing of the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” a movement of visionary mysticism associated with the Stewart princess Elizabeth (daughter of King James) and her German husband Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine. Disparagingly known as the “Winter King and Queen of Bohemia,” their demise following their defeat at Prague has overshadowed one of the most fascinating chapters “and most profound ironies” in the history of thought. This late-flowering “Enlightenment” at the end of the Renaissance gave birth to the so-called “Age of Reason.” Through a usurping reversal, the “Rosicrucian furore” was all but erased by the Cartesian era it helped engender. A more extensive treatment of this theme is on my “musings” page, using the Renaissance historian Frances Yates and her excellent study, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment as a guide through these intriguing historical woods.

Wagner’s reference to the “old as the world” setting signals a connection to the wisdom of the ancients. It enlists mythologies from the Greek classics to the Norse sagas. His inspired prose on Weber’s prototypically German romantic opera reinforces these parallels with the ancient world and its mysteries. I believe Wagner, like many a “romantic” and “visionary” artist – from across the ages – was more in tune with the esoteric traditions than many critics allow. Because these traditions are shrouded in mystery and muddied by misunderstandings they are easy to dismiss or ignore. This is a loss for our appreciation of the lives and works of artists as varied as Leonardo da Vinci and Wagner.

It is not insignificant that his reference to the “Wolf’s Glen” legend parallels Yates’s findings on the Rosicrucian movement whose “last traces of grandeur” were also “destroyed.” The loss of that mystical tradition is part of the reason “secret societies” (like the Freemasons) have always existed in a “catch-22” relationship with their prevailing culture. Again, the curious and inquiring may look elsewhere for clues. I am not making any claims for Wagner’s “membership” in a literal or figurative chain of hermetic artists, alchemists or mystics. I simply perceive a connection between Wagner’s life and the metaphysical “forces” that propel The Magic Flute, Weber’s masterpiece and all of Wagner’s own music dramas.

Like Gounod’s Faust, Freischütz is an opera that takes off after a “date with the devil,” involves conflict and consequence, and ends with salvation. Redemption is the leitmotif of Wagner’s music dramas. Reconciliation is also one of the principal motifs uniting the various schools of esoteric thought, the Renaissance and its re-incarnation in the Romantic movements of the 19th century. Both the theme of reconciliation and “the daemonic powers” of this mysterious “spirit world” engage Wagner’s imagination and fire his creativity. He says as much himself.

Wagner said Weber’s orchestration “seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world,” and eagerly confessed to a “sense of eeriness that had always excited me.” That same titillating thrill has always drawn hordes of spectators into various arenas to watch "thrillers." Who knows, Wagner might have been a horror movie fan had he lived in another era. His music has certainly inspired the dramatic scores that accompany films from Hitchcock suspenses to Star Wars. Subject to vivid visions, dreams and nightmares throughout his life, Wagner’s prose can also reach heights of oneiric fancy. Though Adams doesn’t cite him as a formative influence, his own fantastic dreams echo Wagner’s rich imaginative life. Perhaps my syncretist claims for a connection between the two composers is as tenuous as some of those made by Wagner’s biographers. Let’s see.

Weber’s opera had its premiere in 1821, the year Wagner’s stepfather Geyer (whose name means “Vulture”) died. Wagner learned the score as a child and played excerpts to his dying stepfather. One of Wagner’s biographers, Joachim Köhler illuminates fascinating details between the life and works in Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans (Yale, 2004). One such parallel is in the first bird the hunter shoots in the folktale upon which Freischütz is based. Johann Apel, author of the original story, lived in the same Leipzig house where Wagner had some of his earliest, and according to Köhler, “darkest experiences.”

After making the deal with the “dark tempter,” the hunter shoots, and “a great vulture [Geier] fell bleeding to the earth.” In Weber’s opera the bird is an eagle [Adler]. Nietzsche uses a pun on the identities of the birds to reinforce the (false) claim that Geyer was actually Jewish. “A Geyer [vulture] is almost an Adler [eagle] – that is, a Jew,” quotes Köhler. This enigma nagged Wagner, who was uncertain about the identity of his real father. It shines at least a sliver of light on a possible origin of his notorious and odious anti-semitism. Richard Wagner was known as Richard Geyer until he was a teenager. Regardless of the origin and veracity of such biographical enigmas, the importance of the archetype of the felled bird is a potent symbol. As I mentioned in an essay below about the origins of the “Flying Dutchman” legend, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” features both the “Ghost ship,” and more importantly for his ballad, the shot-down Albatross, ominously hung around the neck of the offending mariner. Near the start of Wagner’s ultimate opera, Parsifal shoots a swan. Like the mariner, he spends the rest of the story atoning for it.

Returning to Weber’s opera and Wagner’s vivid description of it, we find his essay concentrates entirely on this famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene. In the opera, it is the finale of the second act where the young protagonist Max invokes the name of the Mephistophelian “Dark Hunter,” Samiel. In this Faustian pact, he trades his soul for seven “magic bullets” with which he can win the shooting contest as the “Free Shooter” (Der Freischütz), and win the hand of his beloved Agathe. Here Wagner is describing the hunter’s approach to the mysterious lair.

“Arrived at the verge, he had looked down into an abyss, whose depth his eye could never plumb: jagged reefs of rock stood high in shape of human limbs and terribly distorted faces; beside them heaps of pitch-black stones in form of giant toads and lizards; deeper down, these stones seemed living; they moved and crept and rolled in heavy, ragged masses; but under them the ground could no more be distinguished. From thence foul vapours rose incessantly, and spread a pestilential stench around; here and there they would divide, and range themselves in ranks that took the form of human beings with faces all convulsed…”

Wagner’s description of the scene is as fantastic as the vivid prose of E.T.A. Hoffmann or Edgar Allen Poe. Wagner’s interest in Gothic fantasy is evident in his essay, and informs the world of his next music drama, the “poem” (libretto) of which was begun in and around his 1841 sojourn to Paris. That poem would evolve to become his first great music drama, The Flying Dutchman.

Köhler’s calls Wagner a “Virgilian guide” to the “Dantesque Inferno” of the “Wolf’s Glen” scene. Like Dante, Wagner is so inventive with his version of the tale, he threatens to overshadow the original. With language of great potency, he describes what the hunter finds in “the jaws of hell.”

“Everything awakens from its deathly slumber, everything comes to life and swirls and stretches; the howling turns to a roar, the groaning to the sound of a raging fury; a thousand grimaces circle the magic ring.”

Wagner could be describing his own music, a point Köhler reinforces. “Only he who exposes himself to the terrible visions of the subconscious can cast the magic bullets of music… In Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin and the Ring, he conjured up the demonic power that was to oppose his errant heroes in the guise of their fatal adversaries.” And therein we have the essence of the Wagnerian formula: curse, conflict and resolution / redemption.

Equally interesting and significant to Wagner is Weber’s mortal villain, Caspar. “Condemned to eternal wanderings, like the Flying Dutchman,” observes Köhler, Caspar was the role Wagner played himself in a living-room example of children’s theatre, soon after the work’s premiere. This helps us understand his identification with the Dutchman, the Faustian figure Wagner makes utterly his own. Where Weber’s Caspar is an interesting, if somewhat conventional “bad guy,” Wagner’s Dutchman is Shakespearean. Wagner’s sweeping imagination carries his characters to new heights, having plumbed the depths.

It should come as no surprise that he was carried away as a child performer, relishing Samiel’s “devilish whistle” in the improvised children’s theatre. Köhler notes how, 20 years later he was “carried away while writing the article… Fired by his own enthusiasm, he went far beyond the familiarly eerie world of the opera, perhaps only stopping short at the point where his nightmares had taken him…”

I don’t think Wagner stopped short of his nightmares. He lived them. They are written into his music and fire his dramas. From the stormy overture of The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal’s life and death battle in the enchanted forest 4 decades later, and nowhere more vivid than in the mythic epic, The Ring of the Nibelungs, Wagner faced the darkness and found a way to through-compose the light.

Near the conclusion of his essay, Wagner spells out the reason for his love of these particularly German sagas. He is in thrall to the mysterious dark powers because he believes in Nature’s regenerative and ultimately redeeming power. His trenchant assessment of the imagination-stunting effects of “conventional life” still rings true. His idealism where these “Nature-sagas” and the German “Volk” are concerned should inform our understanding of this most enigmatic of artists. Because of the posthumous connection of Wagner's music with Hitler's Reich, bolstered by Wagner's own anti-semitism, it is easy to distort history by associating Wagner with the fascist “folk” of a German Reich he could never have foreseen and most certainly would have abhorred. One cannot thoroughly consider Wagner without approaching the tragic history of his country in the 20th century, and the atrocities of the Third Reich which used his music as manipulative propaganda. That will be the subject of another essay, and it has been the subject of many a book and symposium. This piece is concerned with Wagner’s response to a great romantic, authentically “German” opera, and we shall give him the last word on it.

It seems to be the poem of those Bohemian woods themselves, whose somber aspect lets us grasp at once how the lonesome forester would believe himself, if not the prey of a daemonic nature-power, at least irrevocably subject to it. And that is just what constitutes the specifically German character of this and similar sagas: a character so strongly tinged by surrounding Nature, that to her we must ascribe the origin of a demonology … Albeit terrible, this notion does not here become downright remorseless: a gentle sadness shimmers through its awe, and the lament over Nature’s lost Paradise knows how to soften the forsaken Mother’s vengeance. And that is just the German type. Everywhere else we see the Devil communing with men, obsessing witches and magicians, and saving of abandoning them to the stake according to his humour… In that the very rawest peasant no more believes today, because such incidents are laid too baldly in conventional life, where they quite certainly take place no longer: but happily the mystic converse of the human heart with its own surrounding Nature is not yet done away with; for in her sounding silences she speaks to it today just as she did a thousand years gone by, and what she told it in the days of hoary eld it understands today as well as ever. And so these Nature-sagas come to be the Poet’s never-failing element of discourse with his folk.

from Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Volume VII: In Dresden and Paris
(translated by William Ashton Ellis)

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