Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
The Royal Opera House and Intelligence Squared have posted up the full video of Sunday’s Verdi vs Wagner debate and performance.
Any signs from heaven (or hell) from the composers?
Verdi apparently didn’t believe in god, so (according to some), they should both be in hell now!
Maybe they finally met
Verdi’s Libera Me meets Wagner’s Karfreitagszauber.
Neither did Wagner.
Mit grösstem Empörung lege ich Verwahrung ein gegen die unzureichende Präsentation der Fragmenten meiner Werken!!! Als ob es hier noch nicht warm genug wäre!!!
I’m sure Wagner’s grammar wasn’t that bad.
Get your genders right.
Das war meine Frau… sie ist nicht Deutsch. Aber sie ist immer männlich empört.
Even though I have Wagner engraved on my soul, Norman, and the Bayreuth logo embroidered on my winter pyjamas, you should have won the debate on your performance alone.
In fact, you’ve made me rethink Verdi – and as for the Dušica Bijelić piece – well, I struggle to think of anything more beautiful (except her, of course). No wonder JT ran out of breath!
Oh dear, John was close to the best of them all in his day – can’t someone advise him, kindly, he should stick to coaching the young.
The voice, true, is ragged, but the stage presence is still there in spades, Maybe I was feeling overly emotional on Sunday evening but at the start of the Farewell I almost burst into tears. I told him this afterwards (I happened to walk past him on my way out and have a tendency to open my mouth without thinking when I bump into someone famous!) and we had this wonderful little moment when he looked at me and said, after some silence, ‘I know. Me too’. I almost wept again! Though Traviata was my first operatic love as a teenager, and Don Carlo gives me goosepimples, it’s Wagner all the way in my personal affections.
I watched the whole debate and found it very interesting, good and thought provoking points made by both “combatants”. Highly recommended!
The music examples were also very well chosen and served to underline that it really doesn’t make much sense to compare and “rank” the two composers. It would be more interesting to compare and identify what their common influences may be – for instance, I think in the form and musical language of the “La forza del destino” overture , there may be an influence from Weber as well as the more obvious Italian stylistic sources, and Weber obviously also had a strong influence on Wagner. Also see Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”, I think there is some influence from Weber there as well, perhaps not at all surprisingly since the work is based on a German play by Schiller.
I don’t think that it was such a strong argument for Verdi though that one can actually sing “Va, pensiero” in Hebrew although it was an very original contribution of yours. I found your observation that this anthem of freedom sung by the Jews in Babylonian exile made his message more than simply nationalist, but inclusive of outsiders, very interesting but I think that is a too optimistic interpretation, and I doubt that is the way it was seen by most in Italy in the 19th century.
That staunchly Catholic society had a very conflicted and somewhat, let’s say schizophrenic relationship with the “Judeo” part of their Judeo-Christian heritage. To Italians at the time, the Jews of the OT period were a mythological people that preceded the foundation of their own (Christian, specifically Catholic) religion and were part of that heritage, but not in the sense that they were ready to give the Jews contemporary to themselves that same status; rather, they saw the Jews of their own time as people who may have been the descendants of the people on whose religion Christianity itself was founded, but who had failed to acknowledge the arrival of their Christian savior, and in their eyes, that was a terrible sin. The Catholic church (as well as other denominations, of course) had spent many centuries hammering that in people’s heads, going right back to the gospel of John and the apostle Paul’s doings. So for most Italians in that historical situation, the Jews in “Nabucco” were not the same Jews who lived in their own time, and they wouldn’t have seen the opera and specifically that chorus as a strong call for inclusiveness. After all, in their world view, the post-Christian Jews had excluded themselves from their world by not acknowleding the divine savior figure of Christianity.
I also wonder whether it was the best strategy though to mostly base your argument on the “good guy vs. bad guy” thing. Hensher had a good counter argument when he said that being a rather complex and conflicted person with a nasty side may have given Wagner more insights into the dark side of human beings and that his bad guys appear mre complex than Verdi’s. On the other hand, it is really hard to establish whether that really is the case, and I think that is more or less entirely subjective.
But at the end of the day, the “good guy/bad guy” thing really doesn’t matter that much because, well, let’s say, Italy had the nice guy and Germany the not so nice guy, so what difference did it make? None. Both countries were in a very similar political situation during their lifetimes, both countries had a surge of nationalism which led to unification, and eventually both countries slid into chaos and fascism.
Italy and the German speaking countries have far more in common historically and culturally than many people seem to realize, especially those who are from neither country.
So yes, Nabucco does not seem to be designed as a soundtrack to Theodor Herzl’s writings. Like Shakespeare in The Merchant Venice, Verdi was not interested in Jews as such. Themes like suppression and liberation mattered, in society and at home, and any icon or symbol representing those were suitable as a vehicle.
One could meanwhile that Verdi believed that after liberation paradise would emerge, while Wagner’s Schopenhauerian pessimism led to the conviction that any step to freedom includes to steps to corruption and tyranny.
The soundtrack of Herzl’s writings was Wagner actually, Tannhauser in particular. He wrote as much in his diary.
Interesting. Herzl loved Tannhäuser? Or he found it a proof of Wagner’s antisemitism and a reason to start the concept of a Jewish state? Perhaps the first, which your answer also suggests, moreover as there are few hints of Wagner’s antisemitism in Tannhäuser, if in any of his opera’s; at least less than (possibly) in Meistersinger or the Ring, or Parsifal..
Theodor Herzl was a great fan of Rienzi, in particular the organisation of crowds. This is no joke.
It’s nothing of the sort that you suggest! He just loved Wagner in general, and Tannhauser in particular(though, one of the incidents that made him aware of the extent of antisemitism around him was indirectly connected to Wagner). Long story short(in a manner of speaking), here is a book that does explain the phenomenon in a fairly accurate manner:
Interesting. I had no idea. Googling this brings up a number of interesting articles, e.g.
“Wagnerian pageantry and costumes further inspired Herzl to institute a formal dress code for attendees at Zionist congresses, and the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 opened to the strains of music from Tannhäuser.”
Who would have thought?
Norman, I wonder whether that you mentioned that people out of snobbery incline to say they prefer Wagner might have ignited some people to vote for Wagner indeed, even in secret.
Could be. I honestly don’t think that playing to anti-German stereotypes (“Wagner is as long winded as a Merkel speech”) helped the case for Verdi either.
Very interesting discussion, and Norman Lebrecht was the much better advocate. Verdi got the best performance, the Wagner suffered from singer and orchestra. Verdi was, after all, a classicist and kept to the human dimension; Wagner the romantic intellectual who bit off more than even he could chew, but created some wonderful things along the way. In the end, it is Verdi who was the best and most effective, ‘pure’ opera composer, opera seen as a traditional genre. Wagner created symphonic opera, a hybrid, and hence the imbalances and contradicitons.
History has moved past that simplistic notion of what opera “should” be like a long, long time ago.
Sorry you had to hear it from me…
This is a reaction, with totalitarian overtones and without any argument (as usual this goes together very well), typical of people who have not noticed that in the arts, there is no such thing as ‘progress’, and that there is not a Hegelian autonomous historic force determining what is what. ‘History’ has never ‘decided’ what ‘opera’ is or ‘should be’; we have all our freedom of opinion where only arguments count. Therefore, there are good reasons to consider Wagner’s stage works as hybrids, however wonderful much of it is.
I have the feeling that the centre of that is about what Michael Schaffer wrote. Of course nobody would claim that while music during the course of history obviously evolved, Wagner was a progress over Beethoven and Bach was a progress over Monteverdi and Monteverdi was a progress over Obrecht. The idea of such ‘progress’ has mostly been abandoned in our times, while for instance from authors of the Italian Renaissance one can find many writings claiming their style was far superior to the Gothic style, and they even propagated to tear down a lot of Gothic buildings or radically redesign them.
Meanwhile when I listen to an opera or music work of any sort, for enjoying, such as Parsifal or Otello or the latest album by Elvis Costello with The Roots, to know whether what I hear is a hybrid or not does not influence my experience. And many of the best works in music history are hybrids…
Spot on. And a good work of art always creates its own aesthetic context. But the point was, that Verdi kept within the practical boundaries of the genre, which made it possible that his operas can be performed satisfactorily in most regular theatres, while Wagner wanted more, which only found its happy synthesis in Parsifal as performed at the Bayreuth theatre.
True.. even though a real full Aida could not be done everywhere too.Verdi needed elephants, Wagner needed Blümenmädchen.
Author, novelist, broadcaster, cultural commentator.
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