Can music lovers get past the two problems Wagner poses - his anti-semitic views and the scale of his work, which is a turn-off to the zapper generation? Arminta Wallacereports
Some adore him. Some detest him. Some consider him a crashing bore. But few people in the music world have no opinion about Richard Wagner: so the fact that the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's new season programme is to include a Wagner strand - albeit a modest one - is likely to spark yet another "love him or hate him?" debate in musical circles.
As is so often the case in such debates, the nay-sayers get all the best lines. The French poet Charles Baudelaire once declared: "I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws." More recently, the American conductor David Randolph described Parsifal as "the kind of opera that starts at six o'clock and after it has been running for three hours, you check your watch and it says 6.20." Miaow.
It's said that more has been written about Wagner than about anybody else in European history except Jesus Christ. There is - oddly enough - general agreement in the musical world about Wagner's status as a composer. Open any of those books and they'll tell you he was one of the most influential composers ever. He brought about a quantum shift in European opera. He was the first, and possibly the only, composer who wrote all his libretti himself. He even built his own theatre, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, in Bavaria, in order to ensure that his works were staged according to his demanding theatrical principles.
Not for Wagner the easy applause of a string of hit arias linked by a disposable storyline. He insisted on a "total work of art" in which music, drama and theatrical staging would have equal billing. It was Wagner who introduced the notion - considered outré in his day - of dropping the lights in the opera house so that the audience could focus on the stage instead of on each other. And he produced a body of work whose sheer scale is jaw-dropping. The average Wagner opera weighs in at more than four hours in length, with the Ring cycle clocking up a whopping 15 hours over four consecutive evenings at the theatre.
But was Wagner a genius or a monster? And if the latter, does his music also contain an unhealthy dose of monstrosity? For many people this is the real question about Wagner: and it's not an easy one to answer. To begin with, Wagner appears to have been a first-class pain in the ass. He borrowed money from almost everyone he knew, and not only refused to pay it back but ranted, railed and bad-mouthed the hapless lender to all and sundry when they declined to lend him any more. He was a serial womaniser, a control freak and a relentless self-publicist.
None of which is particularly unusual in the opera world. Wagner's megalomania, however, took a distinctly political form. His anti-semitic views were virulent enough to shock his contemporaries at a time when an almost casual anti-semitism was endemic across much of Christian Europe. Add to this that his operas, and many of his prose writings, make the case for a highly romanticised form of German nationalism - not to mention the fact that he was one of Hitler's favourite composers, and that his daughter-in-law was pretty pally with the Führer - and it's easy to see why, for some people, the very name "Wagner" carries distinctly unpalatable associations.
Such is the strength of feeling around the issue of the composer's anti-semitism that public performances of Wagner's music have traditionally, if informally, been banned in the state of Israel. In the summer of 2001 the Jewish-American conductor Daniel Barenboim created a furore when his Berlin State Opera orchestra played a short extract from Tristan und Isolde as an encore at a concert in Jerusalem. Barenboim had asked the audience's permission to perform the music, and though a small number of people stormed out of the auditorium, most stayed, and the piece was greeted with tumultuous applause. Nevertheless Barenboim was heavily criticised by the Knesset's culture committee, which - in a move which had its own distinctly unpalatable aroma - called for a boycott on his appearances in the country for the foreseeable future.
IT GOES WITHOUT saying that Wagner was not a Nazi. He died almost half a century before the formation of the National Socialist German Workers' Party in 1920. It was hardly his fault if Hitler was a fan of his work. Indeed, given the subject matter of Wagner's operas - German myths and folk tales, complete with warrior maidens and superheroes - it would be more surprising if the dictator had not approved of Tannhauser, Siegfried, Brunnhilde et al. For a younger generation of concertgoers, meanwhile, the political and philosophical aspects of Wagner pale beside the "other" Wagner problem - namely, the huge canvas on which he worked, and the difficulty of getting any kind of foothold on the Wagner musical ladder.
For the zapper generation, life is simply too short for Wagner; which is perhaps why the RTÉ NSO season has elected to concentrate on a steady drip of single excerpts rather than an overwhelming deluge of music.
The first of these, at the National Concert Hall tomorrow, is the Wesendonk-Lieder, a setting of poems by Wagner's lover and patroness, sung by the English mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton; this will be followed on Friday, September 14th by the overture to Rienzi. On October 19th it's the turn of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, with the young Irish soprano Miriam Murphy. The penultimate concert of the season, on May 16th 2008 will feature orchestral highlights from the Ring cycle.
This is a mere glimpse into Wagner's vast oeuvre, yet it shows Wagner the composer at his best - and, arguably, Wagner the man at his worst. Otto Wesendonck contributed generous sums to the Wagner coffers: and Wagner's relentless pursuit of his wife Mathilde caused immense pain in both households. Yet Mathilde was Wagner's muse, and a valued confidante, for many years. There are those who say that the mould-breaking chromatic harmonies of Tristan und Isolde were intended to express his sexual desire for her: a number of themes from the opera certainly turn up in the Wesendonck-Lieder.
The overture to Rienzi, meanwhile, offers a hint of the kind of operas Wagner might have written, had he not been Wagner.
But it's the orchestral highlights from the Ring cycle, moving as they do through disaster and tragedy to a kind of despairing bliss, which provide the best introduction to the way in which Wagner's music plugs directly into the emotions of the listener. Give Wagner half a chance - just stop and listen to that unmistakeable Wagner shimmer, that luscious colouring, those cinematically vivid sound-pictures - and he'll sweep you off your feet.
The ecstasy, though, comes at a price. As the late Palestinian writer and critic, Edward Said, pointed out, it's not only Israeli Jews who have a problem with Wagner. According to Said, the music itself - "rich, extraordinarily complex and influential in the musical world" - symbolises the horrors of German anti-semitism. He adds that to many non-Jewish Europeans, Wagner is "barely acceptable" for some of the same reasons. In the early 21st century our knowledge of neuroscience and the workings of cultural consciousness make it impossible for us to draw a simplistic line between the man (bad) and his music (good); our knowledge of the Shoah makes it impossible to forget that a terrible shadow lies close to the sunny surface of first-world global capitalism. Perhaps, from here on in, the existence of that shadow aspect of Wagner's music is something we'll just have to accept and acknowledge. Maybe we'll have to hate him - and learn to love him too.
• The Wesendonck-Lieder will be performed at the National Concert Hall tomorrow as part of the RTÉ NSO 2007-8 season