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
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"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.