Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Stereotyping Wagner

If you haven’t seen the 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, I can tell you that it is a most exciting and enjoyable film.

Based on the novel by Ira Levin, the story tells of the exceedingly evil Dr. Josef Mengele’s attempt to clone Aldof Hitlers (yes, plural). The movie boasts extraordinary star power – Sir Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, and a brilliant casting choice of Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele. Peck, most noted for his playing of extremely decent men, most notably Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird, masterfully plays the Nazi physician, with evil oozing out of every pore of the character. Interestingly, the movie also stars John Rubinstein, youngest son of pianist Arthur Rubinstein, as a young American aiding Lieberman.

At one point in the film, Dr. Mengele is reliving his past glories, and at that very moment, the music swells to a full orchestral fortissimo, and the music sounds very much like that of Richard Wagner. Indeed, Wagner’s music has been so much associated with the Nazi era, especially in the popular media, the unknowing might think that the composer had lived in the 1930’s.

Yes, Richard Wagner was no saint, and his anti-Semitic article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), was not his finest moment as a man or artist, to say the least. In fact, certain members of the Wagner family were enthusiastic supporters of the Führer in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And Jewish inmates of the concentration camps probably did hear the music of Wagner played by the camp commandant, and would therefore have very painful association with it. Yet, to stereotype the music of Wagner as only associated with the Nazi is grossly unfair.

In his wonderfully witty and touching memoir, A Book of Hours, Father M. Owen Lee, one of opera’s most astute observers, shares with his reader an exchange he had with a German innkeeper in Nuremberg, who has very negative views on the composer. To me, no one has written more eloquently about Wagner, the man and the music, as Father Lee has, and what he writes in the book can give us much food for thought:

(I)n a many-sided genius like Wagner, you get many faults, self-destructive faults, that we ordinary people don’t have. That is one reason why the works of art that geniuses produce are so rich. What they can’t work out in their lives they are compelled to work out in their art.

About Wagner being misused by Hitler, Father Lee says:

(W)orks of art are often created by very imperfect men, out of a kind of madness that, if wrongly used, can be destructive.

He goes on to point out that the Bible has been quite often misused for man’s own end, just as Homer’s Iliad was used by Alexander the Great to justify his massacres.

When I listen to the music of Wagner, I hear love, compassion, magnanimity, generosity of spirit, nobility, and inner peace, qualities that Wagner himself did not possess. Again, quoting Father Owen Lee:

An artist has to pay for the gift of his genius. Wagner paid. He was defeated, one way or another, all his life. His own self-destructiveness always pursued him – possessed him, even. But what he couldn’t do, his characters do. They come to understand themselves and find peace.

I believe that it is possible, even crucial, to dissociate an artist from his or her art. In his play Amadeus, Peter Shaffer portrays the great composer as a vulgar, over-sexed, childish man. Although not historically accurate, I believe the playwright is making exactly the same point as Father Lee - that geniuses are, more often than not, less than perfect men or women.

Wagner’s curse is that his music was purportedly loved by Hitler, although I suspect the Führer’s understanding of Wagner’s music was probably very superficial. Hitler also professed to love the music of Schubert and Bruckner, and their names have never been tainted because of it. Another one of Father Owen Lee’s many books is titled Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. The very rich body of music was Wagner’s true contribution to humanity.

To all who read this article, I wish you a very joyous and peaceful Christmas, and a very happy and healthy 2013.

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