Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 35

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Rogers Kent-Clarke, having arrived in Harmonia-IV, was shopping at Puccini's haberdashery when the composer mentioned an opera he'd recently completed since he'd died. Meanwhile, Dr. Kerr was preparing to return to Dresden in 1848 to rescue Wagner from the clutches of Klangfarben's plot.

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Chapter 35
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Wagner is one of the great conundrums in classical music.

"Wait, is 'conundrums' the right plural or should it be 'conundra'? That sounds stupid... While we've taken a break, do you have my good side for the opening close-up?"

The recording engineer looked steadily at him and without blinking said this is an audio recording only. Considering the man's temper, the engineer didn't want to point out there were no cameras in the room, only a couple of microphones.

"What do you mean we're not filming!?" Manfred Kaye exploded. "I spent hours this morning getting myself ready for this, got a haircut and even bought a new tie just for this recording!" He flipped the end of the tie up just in case the engineer didn't know what a tie was. "This is a fuckin' $450 tie! Jesus, you think I can just throw $450 around on a tie for nothing, on my salary?"

He knew he could, naturally, even though the guys working in the pop music divisions made tons more money than he did. Kaye flopped himself back in the chair and sulked while he had a flashback to when he first graduated from Monitor Merrimack College with a masters in composition: that was when he didn't have $450 to throw around on a tie. Hell, he didn't have $4.50 to throw around on a tie, then. So in that sense, "yeah," he figured, "I'm a success." Besides, he made tons more money than this lousy engineer, anyway.

The engineer leaned forward, suggesting they start again. Man Kaye sat up, straightened the unnecessary tie and started over.

“You know, I don't even care for Wagner. Oh, his music's okay, I guess...”

The engineer interrupted him, asking if that was really how he wanted to start.

"No, you're right," Kaye responded, "I should stick to my script. What I think is of no relevance. 'Just the facts, ma'am'..." Then he realized the engineer was too young to get the Dragnet inference. Actually, he was, too – it was something his grandfather always used to say.

Composer Man Kaye – that was what he really wanted to be, he thought, not some corporate lackey bringing down a five-figure salary and living in a big luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park. That's what he told people at work: he didn't mention you had to look out the bathroom window, toward the left, to see it two blocks away.

Wagner is one of the great puzzles of classical music.

We think of the great Beethoven as a titan striding across mountains, writing music about Universal Man, great masterpieces anybody can relate to. Wagner – not so much. He may have been a titanically arrogant man concerned more about money and posterity, building his own opera house as a monument not to Art but to His Art. He was the personification of Ego, the self-important artist who knew better than his critics, who looked down on his audience. And then there was that whole Nazi thing.

The engineer leaned forward to interrupt him again, asking if he realized how excited he was beginning to sound – ‘vehement’ was the first word he'd thought of.

"Sorry," Kaye leaned back, wiping his brow.

This new engineer annoyed him, always butting in. Couldn't he edit this stuff later? It was like he thought Kaye didn't really know his stuff.

"Like, I can't get my mind around that whole Jewish thing, you know?"

The engineer took a slow sip of his by now cold coffee and told Kaye his name was Goldberg and he liked Wagner's music. "I don't agree with his politics and maybe I wouldn't want to invite him over for dinner, but I like his music."

Over the years, even bringing up Wagner's name in conversation with his friends would unleash a torrent of discussion about the pros and cons of separating the man from his music, even if you weren't Jewish.

If Richard Wagner were around today (Kaye said, starting over), he would be the darling of the tabloids. He had several affairs before he divorced his long-suffering wife, Minna, then, inviting his newly married staunch supporter, Klaus von Bülow and his wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt – actually, she was one of Liszt's three illegitimate daughters, if you get my drift...

The engineer interrupted again, correcting him: that was Hans von Bülow, not Klaus – a different, more recent scandal.


"This guy," Kaye thought, "thinks he knows everything: who makes the bigger salary, eh?"

If Richard Wagner were alive today, yadda yadda yadda... then he stole conductor Hans von Bülow's wife, Cosima, Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter, away from him – and they had a couple of illegitimate children of their own before they finally bothered to get married. It was all part of that moral cesspool the 19th Century excused by calling it 'Romanticism.'

Just look at the music Wagner composed, almost exclusively operas with stories about tragic, illicit love reeking of sin and then seeking redemption only to find it in death. Except for 'Die Meistersinger,' supposedly a comedy with all that Nazi stuff about how great German Art is... and then 'Parsifal' where Wagner equates himself with Christ, for Christ's sake...

"Look," the engineer interrupted again, "do you want to talk about Wagner's life and music or just vent your opinions about him?"

"Jew…" Kaye mumbled.

"What's that?"

"I was starting to say, 'd'you wanna start over again?'"

It probably would've been better had they started their Composers Series with someone Kaye liked – Bach or Mozart, then tackling Beethoven before getting around to Wagner. Of course, throwing in someone French or Italian might've been nice, but this is how Ron Steele wanted it done. The idea was to start marketing them through Public Broadcasting's classical music stations.

Wagner was Steele's favorite composer. In fact, on those occasions Kaye got a chance to enter the CEO's inner office, he was always playing music from The Ring probably because it reminded him of "Star Wars."

Once SHMRG got the license to the whole "Star Wars" franchise, which he viewed as inevitable, Kaye's plan was to sue the pants off Mr. Wagner for copyright infringement. Artists need to be taught a lesson.

What he hadn't realized then was, once "Operation Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door" would fall into place, this whole series of recordings was going to be moot.


Richard Wagner was born on May 22nd, 1813. When his father died shortly afterward, his mother married an actor named Ludwig Geyer who adopted the boy. This early association with the theater proved a formative influence on the young boy – whose name, now, was Richard Geyer though after his stepfather died, he decided to revert to the name Wagner.

As a child, he saw Weber conduct Der Freischütz, then discovered E.T.A. Hoffman and Shakespeare. He wrote plays about chivalry in which lots of people died and he liked the idea of writing music for them.

His artistic beginnings weren't remotely like those by famous prodigies such as Mozart or even Beethoven. Someone described his works as "passionately begun but badly carried out." There was nothing ‘not amateurish’ about what he composed. Even as a young man, a symphony and his earliest operas all smacked of pale imitation, showing no real talent or particular promise.

Yet he was relentlessly self-assured that, eventually, he would succeed. He became a conductor in small opera houses, had difficulty getting his first major work staged, the opera Rienzi, which might have put him on par with other once acclaimed but now forgotten composers. He racked up considerable debt and was constantly evading his creditors, barely one step ahead.

Then something strange happened. While fleeing creditors by ship across a stormy Baltic Sea, Wagner remembered hearing the story of "The Flying Dutchman" which he decided to turn into his next opera. Somehow, Wagner's music changed forever.

Where this suddenly mature, clearly much more original-sounding and obviously great music came from was anybody's guess. It was like all these fingerprints we associate with Wagner's greatest works must have been buried deep inside him, fermenting over the years, when finally this stormy, bone-rattling sea voyage jostled everything to the surface by the time he was almost 30.

His career was not an immediate success. His ideas were radically different, his approach to opera going against the standard conventions. People didn't always like what he composed and singers couldn't always sing what he wrote.

During the 1840s, he wrote Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, full of mysterious goings-on in medieval German kingdoms. He became involved in politics, writing pamphlets and storming the ramparts during the failed revolution in 1849, barely avoiding arrest. The King of Saxony then issued a warrant charging him with treason, so Wagner escaped to live in exile, eventually settling in Switzerland.

Years of struggle followed, composing operas about medieval legends to his own texts, trying to get them performed and trying even harder to get them accepted. Raising money to build his own opera house, he composed Tristan und Isolde for smaller forces – easier to get performed – but it proved so difficult, it was withdrawn after nearly a hundred rehearsals.

It took 25 years to complete the four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, premiered in Bayreuth where he finally built that special opera house of his. He died in 1883 internationally acclaimed – and frequently reviled.

Wagner was regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 19th Century, pushing the style of tonal music beyond the brink of acceptability, especially in Tristan und Isolde. He also blurred the distinction between recitative and aria, creating an unending flow of music. Without him, the 20th Century – for better or worse – would have been very different.

Manfred Kaye sank back in his chair exhausted from trying to keep himself on track and under control during the recording session, somehow able to manage everything in one uninterrupted take, much to the engineer's surprise. He wasn't sure it was all entirely factual but his intent wasn't to be scholarly, just to entertain. Skimming the surface was enough.

"Put a bunch of music under that – you know, stuff from The Flaming Douchebag Overture with bits from Tristan and the Ring, maybe "Star Wars" for something familiar – and it's a go."

The engineer just nodded.


Richard Wagner was practically born in the midst of battle. Napoleon's army defeated the German Alliance outside Dresden a week earlier. That summer, his mother took her son and fled to Teplitz, but his father, a police officer working for the French occupation troops, died in a typhus epidemic following the Battle of Leipzig only a few months later.

Imagine the baby Wagner, sleeping safely in his crib in Teplitz, the spa where Goethe and Beethoven were guests that summer, receiving a baptism of German culture. But there's no proof the Wagners ever met them.

The politics of post-Napoleonic Europe, following the Emperor's final defeat and exile, fermented for decades, creating explosive issues of nationalism over arbitrary borders that continued to erupt well into the 20th Century, leading to both World Wars and the conflagration engulfing the Balkans in the 1990s. Governments determined the results with little or no concern for where people lived.

Most significantly, there was still no single German state following the collapse of the loose federation formerly known as the Holy Roman Empire, just an even looser collection of city states and small kingdoms. German-speaking people across Central Europe had a culture but no nation, and this, in part, fueled Wagner's attitude toward both his music and his politics.

If German Art – in Goethe's words and Beethoven's music – could rally the culture, soon there would come a cry for a united German state: in the aftermath of the French Revolution, one that might depose its monarchies.

How many times had I lectured about this in my classes or in pre-concert talks about the "life-and-times" of composers like Beethoven, Schubert or Wagner, especially relating to ‘The Ring’? My friends called it "Kerr's Party Piece" since, for an hour, I could hold forth about the Napoleonic impact on classical music's history. You'd think it'd been my dissertation.

We tend to forget the volatility of that era, seemingly peaceful with no really famous wars, where censorship drove people with different ideas underground, how paranoia made governments even more oppressive in the face of opposition.

Could people see the parallels, how the philosophical premise of this dialectic was still alive today? If a government professes what is best for its people, there were those opposed to it simply because opposition was part of the natural human condition, regardless of the form of government. Some thought it quaint, a notion unrelated to our own lives.

Wagner, despite what we know of his writings today, was not essentially a political person except when it came to his own self-interests. His friends thought him wildly inconsistent: while they were calling for the Saxon king to step down, to be replaced by a republic, Wagner felt the king should be the "first and most upright of republicans."

Ridding the country – in this case, Saxony – of its aristocracy would limit the supply of much-needed money to fund his artistic concerns, opposing the equality of “all working people” if it didn’t make exceptions for artists.

His attitudes were a mixture of bits culled from Feuerbach and Proudhon, republicanism and the ideas of "reform from above." If he thought himself a "true socialist," his Communist friends, following Karl Marx's writings, derided this as "the thinking of aesthetes and would-be philosophers." It didn't take much to see that childhood amateurism rising again in his political writings.

His nationalist speeches at the "Fatherland Club" did not win him any favors with the Saxon aristocracy, nor did the conservative middle-class – his target audience – give him much support. As conductor at the Royal Opera House and therefore a court employee, Wagner’s association with the leading revolutionary minds in Dresden wasn’t the most practical of plans, professionally or personally.

In addition to the opera house's architect, Gottfried Semper, and the poet Georg Herwegh, there was the failed musician and revolutionary August Röckel as well as the Russian-born anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, the political gad-fly of 1848.

In the years following the failed revolutions that had swept across Europe in 1848 into 1849, Wagner continued writing essays as well as working on new operas. In "Art and the Revolution," he looked for an infusion of new people into art's traditional audience, taken not from the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie but from the working classes. Industry, he now saw, was the "enemy of art" – the Revolution was meant to liberate men from "the constraints of an industrialized society," to disclose new beauties in order to bring them into a finer awareness of humanity.

If Mercury represented the avaricious financial interests (which Wagner saw primarily represented by Parisian bankers), Apollo "raised mankind to joyful dignity" according to traditional interpretations of Greek myths and the creation of humans. To this, he added the idea of Jesus "who suffered for humanity," to create a synthesis that would probably not sit well with many Christians today.

When Wagner visited Paris as Liszt suggested, he quickly discovered how French culture was controlled by politics and money. Since Wagner had no money and without it, no one paid attention to his ideas, he left the city bitter and humiliated. Later, he wrote the only way to cleanse the place would be to burn it to the ground.

It's interesting to think how the end of The Ring,its story outlined that same year, reflected this attitude, burning the old world of the gods to bring about a new, cleansed world, an age of humans.

Despite his utopian views, Wagner, like many Germans during his time, was anti-Semitic. There's no ignoring this, just as there's no excusing it. He wrote several nasty (and poorly written) essays including "Jewishness in Music." Much of this attitude, like his politics, was probably fueled by the pragmatic realization that whatever they had – aristocrats or Jews – Wagner had not.

He was against business when it failed to support him, against government unless it gave him what he wanted: it didn't matter who or what or how. That Hitler later idolized him should surprise no one.

It's difficult to separate Wagner the Man with his attitudes and ideas, both political and social, from the music he composed. What in our country would be considered patriotism was called nationalism in Germany: today, in Wagner's case, nationalism became evil, especially when carried to extremes about a century later.

It almost doesn't matter what the history books say.

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To be continued

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

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