Tuesday, October 6, 2020


I listened to, rather than watched (for the audio and video were ludicrously unsynced) a talk, rather than an interview, between critic Alex Ross and composer John Adams on Ross's new and epically-researched book Wagnerism, which is not about Wagner's music but about the cultural impact it's had, concentrating (Ross said) on the era 1885-1915.

Adams quoted a number of extreme praises of Wagner, mostly from that era, which passed beyond the ludicrous to the actively nauseating. But he and Ross also offered a possible explanation: the rarity in that era of encounters with Wagner's music. A full opera at the push of a button was impossible then; indeed, it was practically impossible to fit a regular orchestra, let alone a Wagnerian one, in front of an acoustic horn of the day, so no recordings existed. Piano reductions weren't the same thing, not with Wagner, so you had to encounter it live or not at all. The rare chance to hear it could be transporting; ok, I can see that.

Adams cited an excerpt played from Hagen's music in Götterdämmerung as an example of Wagner's emotional depth; that it depicts malignancy in a way music had never done before. Other composers had written evil in music, but next to this, he said, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique sounds comic. Objections from the Berliozians in the audience, I'm sure, and what about Weber? But yes, I can see the point; but to me it's outweighed by shallowness elsewhere in Wagner's conception. A stretch like this isn't integrated with its surrounding music; Wagner has no sense of symphonic development. One might say, this is opera and not a symphony; but if no, so much the worse for opera, and that's why I rarely get anything out of it.

Furthermore, the one other excerpt played was of Tristan and Isolde having manic emotional orgasms over saying "Good morning" to each other. Half overwrought, half marking time; that's Wagner.

Still, I intend to read the book. Even if Wagner isn't good, it's important.

I found it helpful in tolerating the pauses and slow exposition in the talk by running simultaneously another window, quietly with some other music playing. Not by Wagner.

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