Friday, November 4, 2011

Researching Wagner

Richard Wagner is probably the most controversial of the major classical composers, and for good reason: he was fiercely nationalistic, racist, and anti-Semitic, criticizing the influence of Jews on German culture in his infamous essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music). One of Hitler's favorite composers, Wagner and his music were appropriated by the Third Reich and became closely associated with Nazi ideology.

Like many Wagner fans, I fell in love with his music at a young age, long before I learned about Wagner's unsavory political views. In fact, I vividly remember the day when I first heard—and was stunned by—Wagner's Tristan chord, which I assure you was several years before I even knew what anti-Semitism was. (Check out the video below to hear Stephen Fry explain the famous chord.)

There's no denying Wagner's musical genius. But as I grew older and began to understand his motivating ideologies, I started to wonder to what extent art can be separated from ideology, especially for artists like Wagner, for whom the two were so closely intertwined. As Wagner scholar Bryan Magee notes:
"I sometimes think there are two Wagners in our culture, almost unrecognizably different from one another: the Wagner possessed by those who know his work, and the Wagner imagined by those who know him only by name and reputation."
When Professor Merriman told us that we could write our HIST 202 papers on any modern European figure or movement, I saw the assignment as an opportunity to learn and write about one of the most fascinating composers of all time. I began by spending several afternoons in the Sterling music library last week browsing books on Wagner and his work. And while I've only begun to scratch the surface, I'm already amazed by both the richness and sheer volume of published scholarly writing that Wagner has inspired.

And of course, the best part about researching Wagner is being able to blast the epic "Ride of the Valkyries" on loop, all in the name of research.