56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2001
The story that more books have been written about Wagner than about anyone other than Jesus or Napoleon is undoubtedly apocryphal, nevertheless there are an awful lot to choose from! This is one of the shortest, and also, I believe, one of the best. Bryan Magee tackles head on some of the most striking and perplexing issues surrounding Wagner and his works. He traces the quite phenomenal influence that Wagner has had on music and also in the arts more widely. He describes, and attempts to account for, the extreme love ("Wagnerolatry") and loathing ("Wagnerphobia") that Wagner and his works have inspired and continue to inspire. He also sheds some light on the important and disturbing question of Wagner's anti-Semitism. One chapter is devoted to the controversial question of how to stage Wagner's operas today. Perhaps most interestingly of all he offers an explanation for the uncanny potency of Wagner's music: how it induces in some feelings of ecstasy, sometimes likened to being in love, and in others feelings of disgust, whilst it has (allegedly) driven some people to madness. If you want to know more about Wagner's music and its influence, read this book.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 8 August 2009
This little book is just about as important now as it was at the time of publishing. It sets the scene for not just Wagner, but the current state of the performing arts, although particularly opera. It whets the appetite for anyone who has just discovered opera, or who already has a thirst for the richness of the musical arts. It provides simple insights into the way the combination of disparate art forms such as drama, music and staging can result in an art that is far greater than the sum of its parts, and its approachable style (and size) make it ideal even for a beginner. In a few areas it is amusingly out of date, praising the LP Vinyl Record for its role in surpassing the limitations of its 78 rpm forebears, when it is now possible to contain the whole `Ring' cycle, in MP3 format, on a single, relatively minuscule CD, but the message presented thereby holds even more securely. A lovely little book; a minor treasure.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Aspects of Wagner,2nd edition(1988).After 2 decades still the best short introduction to Wagner.Five pointed essays on perhaps the 5 most controversial aspects of the composer-aesthetics,his anti-Semitism,his cult,his influence,and the special difficulties involved in performing his music.The writing is so clear and clean that Wagner's tortured arguments become intelligible almost for the 1st time.Updated in 1988 with an interesting chapter on the special importance of music among the other constituents of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
He states how for Wagner music drama would be the reverse of traditional opera (where the drama is a framework to hang the music),it would present archetypal situations as experienced by the participants,music a means to this dramatic end.This art form would `emotionalize the intellect'.From Beethoven he learned to articulate the inmost drama of the psyche(especially the Choral Symphony).Although there was some naivety in theories citing the ancient Greeks,he thought Shakespeare created total worlds using poetic drama,beyond the Greeks.He criticizes the passivity and solipsism of Wagner,centring his operas on the psyche,not on the external world. Wotan is at the mercy of forces he is powerless to control.The charcters do not relate to each other,the different `characters' being aspects of a single personality.
His chapter about Jews,citing Marx,Freud and Einstein,amongst the greatest of the world's creative geniuses, produced theories about man and his environment so deep and original as to equal any that came before.They started a Jewish renaissance in music,science and philosophy parallel to 5th century Athens BC.This creativity didn't come until the 19th century due to Jews who have escaped their religious traditions,repudiating Judaism.For those who have abandoned religion the greatest enemy is anti-Semitism.But though Wagner was correct in his analysis of why there hadn't been great Jewish composers,he didn't prophecy why there would be great ones(Schoenberg,Mahler)in the future as their rootlessnes and alienation became more integrated into society.His anti-Semitism became repellent as in the Paris of his youth he was destitute,dependent upon famous Jewish composers when his genius was neglected, their works were meretricious entertainments.He also attacked Christianity,but without venom.
The worship of Wagner by great artists like Nietzsche,Baudelaire, and Mann,who was to describe him as a `magician' despite the uses to which his work had been put.He is treated as a `god',people are `converted' or `make a pilgrimage'to Bayreuth.There are also the deniers,who associate his music with Hitler and Nazism.This is because Magee says the works appeal to our unconscious,taboo subjects repressed by society.Archetypal psycho-sexual situations are being acted out,inexpressible feelings captured by the music.He had learned a lot about the will and libido from Schopenhauer.The specific emotion of the human heart(the voice)is set against the wild primal feelings of the instruments,enlarging the human heart.Experience of godlike awareness,unconscious pure emotion.Wagner uses the psychic import of myth and dreams.In discontent Wagner's art is in revolt against civilization,nature realizing its own colossal strength.Magee compares it to like being in love,unrestrained passion.Magee says it appeals to emotionally isolated or repressed people.He tackles the idea of the music as `evil' head on-the dark side of life, its effect on people's stability,its hostility to civilization,unbridled violence,destructive passions,fascism-he posits its ability to put people at one with inner selves and the external world.Therapeutic.The capacity for love is incompatible with the pursuit of power.Repetition and interior monologue taken from Wagner influencedliterature, Eliot,Joyce,the Symbolists,Verlaine,Laforgue,Zola,Proust,Mann,Shaw,Lawrence,Ford,Forster,Woolf.He equally influenced composers,Listz,Debussy,Dvorak,Mahler,Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Bartok,Berg,Delius,Elgar,Delius,Sibelius.
In performance conductors had to feel the tempo not measure it mathematically.In Bayreuth Wagner built his own opera house around the hidden orchestral pit.This helps us see the singers as characters rather than performers,the audience become participants rather than spectators.Magee says Wagner needs to be played with weight and inner clarity,not easy to do.The orchestra should not be too loud for words to be heard.Wagner is best if not translated for the musical modulation,where the consonants and vowel sounds are part of the expressive language,unifying words and music,but their can be a loss of understanding for people who have no German.Sound is important as sense.The best translations match vowel sounds/consonants(egPorter).He compares conductors and singers and their roles.He old-fashionedly talks about LPs and 78rpm but his enthusiasm is immense.
Lastly Schopenhauer's philosophy The World as Will and Idea came to him with the force of revelation,like a religious conversion matching his intuitive principles with reasoned conceptions.Whatever he expressed in his work he could not conceptualize or express in words.He created in each opera a separate world as did Shakespeare with his greatest plays,whose uniqueness is musical.Wagner took symphonic music out of the concert hall into the theatre and combined it with drama with musical genius the equal of anyone's composing some of the most beautiful music ever.One of the 3 greatest composers ever,he was also possessed of greatness as a dramatist of the human psyche. His works are not topical but timeless set in a mythical world.Music needs to be the focus of their staging,music was at the locus of the dramatic conflicts personified and experienced through the music,'acts of music made visible'.Staging needs to be the incarnation of the music and of its perpetually forward-flowing life.In the scores he gives detailed instructions about what the characters are doing.The best short primer ever.