A good friend met my brother a few years ago when visiting the University of Texas at Austin, where my brother was teaching. My friend reported that, after a bit of conversation, he observed that both my brother and I were “erudite.” “Yes,” my brother reportedly replied, “but I am more eruditer.”
This takes us to Martin Geck, whose recent book Richard Wagner: A Life in Music (Univ. Chicago 2013, Stewart Spencer, trans.) is “more eruditer” than can be imagined. In his analysis he casually notes relevant work by Magee, Levi-Strauss, Neuenfels, Mann, Meyerbeer, Wapnewski, Zuber, Klein, Kramer, Hoffmann, Glasenapp and dozens of others, with no pause and without a hint of ostentation, but rather with a desire to support and authenticate his own scholarship. In this one volume a reader is reminded just how robust and responsible a great deal of Wagner scholarship really is.
The main attraction, of course, is Geck’s own perception. Each chapter addresses a particular work as a reflection of Wagner’s growing aesthetic, so it is a kind of intellectual biography told (mainly) as a chronology. Several postulates are original and compelling:
- The persistent world-view and theme of Wagner’s work is not “Redemption Through Love” but rather “Redemption Through Destruction.” Geck relies and extrapolates upon Wagner’s own assertion, in Communication to My Friends, that Senta was able to redeem the Dutchman “only through her own destruction and his.” Thus, the redemptive gesture of Tännhauser, Lohengrin, Siegfried/Brünnhilde and Isolde is not the gesture of love, but of annihilation.
- The musical innovation of Parsifal lies in its ability simultaneously to speak in romantic and 20th century terms. For example, the “Pure Fool” motif has, in the leading voice, a recognizable series of fifths, but in its harmonic treatment an almost atonal setting.
- Wagner may have abandoned the Ring in favor of Tristan and Meistersinger simply because he was feeling “boxed in” by the motivic system of the work – he was unable to think clearly and creatively when his musical vocabulary was limited by the rubric of the Ring. Thus his pleasure at writing the character of Hagen and giving full-throated villainy its own musical vocabulary.
- Meistersinger is a play about music, not only in its scenic setting and plot (the church service singing, the final song contest, the First Act meisterlied, the Second Act serenade and spoofed marking) but in its score itself – its reliance on chorale, fugue, bar forms, counterpoint. Add the distinctly “Germanic” core of the work and it is revealed as a “historicophilosophical construct.”
The book itself has its own structural attractions. The main chapters are interlaced with brief “Words” on colorful characters such as Josef Rubenstein, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and Arnold Schoenberg. The insights are fresh, their brevity and anecdotal nature is welcome – and, I believe, each is a Jew. What have we here?
Not a light book and not an easy read, but in Stewart Spencer’s translation a personal and profoundly well-informed statement in clear and idiosyncratic style, worth the attention of all serious Wagnerians.