Most helpful positive review
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
An excellent introduction spoiled by an over-emphatic chapter on Wagner and the Jews!
on 18 January 2011
This book is (almost) everything one would expect from this author: highly readable, interesting, argumentative and largely well-judged. The bibliography is highly selective but central and the choice of cd recommendations shows the wisdom of years of listening and reviewing new issues of Wagner sets. I am particularly grateful for Tanner's recommendation of Patrick Carnegy's marvelous book on Wagner and the Art of the Theatre and for his arguments which prompted me to pick up Thomas Mann again.
The (almost), I'm afraid, relates to the chapter where Tanner addresses the thorny issue of anti-Semitism in the man and, more problematically, in the music. I share the author's enthusiasm, indeed passion, for the subject of the book and deplore what seems in some quarters to have developed into a critical monomania where all the composer's output is seen as little more than a more or less coded fascist tract, and Wagner as some sort of Nazi shock trooper. Unfortunately, such is Tanner's impatience with such a silly critical approach that his chapter overstates the opposite view to the point where I, a very sympathetic reader, began to feel that he was protesting too much: 'in denial' is the current phrase I think.
Whilst acknowledging the anti-Semitism, he presents it as a personal aberration on Wagner's part which could have nothing to do with the music as experienced in the theatre (unless under the control of a mischievous producer with a very blunt critical axe to grind), and not really central to our understanding the the man as a creative artist. Indeed, Tanner seems to think that no-one, other than earnest academics, no doubt running out of PhD titles and seeking to blaze a trail, has ever noticed anything racist in the works: the Festival, which should have been the hallowed ground for all Nazis if anti-Semitism was at the core of the works, would have had queues of storm-troopers lining up to indulge in confirmation of their perverted world-view, and Cosima and Richard would have openly discussed the effectiveness of, say, Mime and Beckmesser as Jews. Some of these assumptions seem to me to be just plain silly: no doubt racist bigots can be as deaf to the glories of Wagner and as unprepared to be bored by him as anyone else; the fact that in Cosima's diaries there is no mention of discussion between husband and wife of Mime and Beckmesser being Jewish representations is no indication that they were not expected to be perceived as such. And indeed there ARE references by members of the Nazi hierarchy to Wagner's portrayal of characters as embodying stereotypical 'Jewish' traits (though one would hate to be dependent upon their critical perceptions for guidance). More importantly, Thomas Mann and Thomas Grey, whom Tanner marshals to his aid in rebutting the 'racism in the works' view, are more ambivalent than he suggests.
Mann's forthrightness about the question is not so hard to find: he recognises Beckmesser as having similarities to a stereotypically Jewish character in a story by the Grimms (the reference eludes me at the time of writing). Towards the end of 'Pro and Contra Wagner', which contains what Tanner regards as 'the greatest single piece of writing on [Wagner]', Mann comments in a separate piece re a collection of the composer's letters: 'there is too much in [Wagner] that repels, too much 'Hitler', indeed too much latent - or for that matter, manifest - Nazism for any real trust to seem possible, any reverence untrammelled by bad conscience, any love that need not feel ashamed of its name. And yet ....'. (p. 217). Tanner references the 'Hitler' quotation but with a dismissive rhetorical flourish which really will not do.
Grey, in 'The Cambridge Companion to Wagner', writes ' ..... one would have to be culturally tone deaf not to see how Siegfried's attitude towards Mime reflects a great deal of Wagner's attitude towards the Jews..' (p215) Admittedly he goes on to conclude his essay: 'If Wagner influenced the tragic course of German anti-Semitism in the generations to follow, it was through his prominence as a public figure, indeed as a famous artist and composer, but not through the music he composed.' (p. 218) There seems to me to be no contradiction between the two comments: it is the 'space' between them, and indeed between Mann's despairingly negative judgement and his 'and yet ...', that the real problem of Wagner's anti-Semitism lies and which Tanner seems to deny being worthy of real consideration. Indeed it stretches credibility to breaking point to believe that anyone with such strong and openly expressed prejudices as Wagner held could create works utterly devoid of traces of those central beliefs, particularly in dramatic works, not the abstract world of 'pure' music. Such a view does not preclude recognising other, perhaps more vital elements which might conflict with these monstrous ideas.
Of course these and other arguments do not justify the absurd view that Mime et al were narrowly conceived as 'Jewish' representations. Without contextualising knowledge, and given a 'neutral' production, it is unlikely that a listener would see or hear racist elements, I suspect, though the blood and wound imagery of Parsifal might give the sensitive listener pause for thought. Nor was Wagner directly responsible for the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust or any other of the horrors of the Third Reich, though he was by default a part of that cultural world from which all future political developments in Germany developed.
The issue of Wagner and the Jews is too complex, too interesting and too emblematic of the endlessly fascinating contradictions of this hugely important cultural figure to pretend to be able to dismiss the significance of his racism and its possible presence, however inchoate, in the work. If Tanner is able to listen to his works (like Adam before eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge) without occasional unease rooted in what we know of Wagner's explicit and widely published views, then good for him. But those who explore this aspect of Wagner character and output are not necessarily guilty of being 'driveling ... Jew spotters' (an interesting turn of phrase from 'A Consumer', above) particularly in the context of the history of Europe after Wagner's death and the appropriation by the Nazis of the composer. I think this element has become too central to recent critical debates, but it needs to be part of what we say about Wagner and his work, a point made all the more clear to me by the tone of Tanner's engagement with these questions.
Had Tanner not written the chapter on Wagner and anti-Semitism, the book would be a resounding 5*: however, that section seems lacking in the clear-sighted scholarly rigour to which one has become accustomed from the author. And, frankly, his language is so intemperate at times that even if I agreed completely with his stance, I would wish to put some distance between myself and his approach.