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.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate