Operatic visions in a conspiratorial world

Academics still tie themselves in knots over the Wagnerian phenomenon. Never mind the theories, what about the music says Dermot Clinch; Wagner by Michael Tanner HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

"I fear Wagnerians. They are capable of ruining my enjoyment of even the best of Wagner." Brahms had been quick to identify the perennial Wagner problem. Wagner, more than a mere composer or a mere dramatist, was a phenomenon. His dramas were the vehicle of a philosophy, his art was the focus of theories - his own and others - like no art before. Like Freud in Auden's poem, ''In Memory of Sigmund Freud'', like Jesus Christ to whom he is compared in this book on more than one occasion, Wagner created a ''climate of opinion". There are Freudians and Christians. And there are Wagnerians.

Where there are believers, there will often be dissenters, and it is these who weigh on the mind of Michael Tanner, Cambridge philosophy don and new opera critic of the Spectator. ''Why are people not grateful," he wails towards the end of his book, "for what he has given them?'' But even this, the last of many such complaints, is forced. The days of deep Wagner controversy are long gone. In place of idolisation and demonisation, the pro and contra debates that animated the arts last century, in place even of the taint of association with Hitler, the worst that Wagner's operas encounter these days is a bit of temperamental incompatibility. No one doubts that Wagner's place among the "most significant composers" is now secure. Even the question of anti-Semitism in the operas has an academic air, and hardly affects the listening public.

Wagnerians have always thrived, however, on the vision of a world locked in conspiracy against the great man. Michael Tanner's book is an old-fashioned apology, and none the worse for it. Priding himself on his good old common sense - he once thought of founding a magazine called Rigour, Incorporating Standards and Values, so he claims - Tanner asks the questions any worthwhile sceptic will want answered. Do we have to accept Wagner's high-flown intellectual stuff in order to regard the operas as "more than bizarre actions set to frequently wonderful music"? Do we need to believe what Tristan and Isolde sing, simply because the music sounds nice? Those superhuman folk in Wagner's operas - giants, dwarfs, axe-wielding heroes - do they serve a "useful as opposed to a thrilling ... purpose"?

Clearly put they may be. But once put, the questions hang tantalisingly unanswered, or merely obscured. Tanner may be a student of philosophy, a man of wide reading and vigorous opinions, but he has an impenetrable way with words. Should we believe what Tristan and Isolde sing? "The only answer ... is that the experience of love at its most intense becomes an intuition that its fulfilment can only be found in a renunciation of the self, undertaken all the more willingly because the tortures of being a self are so intolerable." And we thought Wagner was a composer! Here once more, with a vengeance, is the old Wagner-as-sage routine, the very one that has been putting newcomers off the great composer for the last hundred and more years. In Tanner's thorough run-through of Wagner's career each opera is treated, not as a work of music, but as a more or less efficient illustration of one man's developing thought. Chapter seven: "Wagner Ponders"; Chapter eight: "What is The Ring About?"; Chapter twelve: "Art, Tradition and Authority". Tanner's book is addressed to those with "some, not necessarily very much, acquaintance" with the operas, but it looks desperately optimistic.

The Tristan chapter, in particular, is impressive, developing an earlier argument of the author that the opera is "one of the two greatest religious works of our culture". But much of the work is hard going. Why take Wagner's word for it, I have always wondered, that he was a worthy philosopher, social scientist, anthropologist? Surely Wagner is the classic case of an artist whose work requires criticism and probing, rather than respectful exegesis. Tanner, however, finds systems of thought where others might find casual insights and apercus. Act II of Tristan und Isolde is not merely of psychological interest, it is a "demolition" of the underlying notions of psychology. The Ring is no mere artistic creation, it is a "great commentary" on human society and its possibilities.

And the music? Those who doubt Wagner most, Tanner writes, are those who feel him "making a devilish bid for their souls". No doubt he is right, though he is surely wrong to identify that bid as primarily intellectual. Wagner's art appeals to the gut before the reason, and it is the music that does it. Shunning musical technicalities, as Tanner does, is fair enough. But to find no alternative method of talking about the music, and so to dismiss it almost altogether, is a grave dereliction.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace