Scratch 'n' Sniff

Did Wagner open up the path that ends up in later neo-Romantic kitsch – a claim repeated over and over by Adorno? There are signs that point in this direction. When Plácido Domingo accepted the post of Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Opera, he immediately announced his intention to bring it closer to the popular Hollywood film industry (using digitalized, cinematic special effects, and so on). It is little wonder that his first project was to stage a “Hollywood Ring:” Wagner’ s tetralogy cut down from its awesome fourteen hours to a collection of big numbers, ornamented with all the technoglitz. Cultural critics in the Adornian vein were quick to note that this was not simply a vulgar profanation of Wagner’s “high art.” The cinematic nature of Wagner’s Ring itself has often been noted. The stage instructions to Act III of Die Walküre (Valkyries riding on clouds, and so on), for example, can be followed only on film even more so, perhaps, in today’s digitally manipulated cinema, in the style of The Lord of the Rings (no wonder that Tolkien’s novel effectively takes its title from Wagner: in Das Rheingold, Alberich is literally designated as “lord of the ring”), another example of how an old art form can develop notions which call for a new art form that arises out of technological inventions. Wagner’s cinematic nature is then used to argue for the kitsch aspect of his music. It is no wonder that a leitmotif-like technique was widely used in classic Hollywood composition. Did Wagner really accomplish the first step towards the kitschy ‘fetishization’ of music that reaches its apogee in classical Hollywood?

But what if the original sin had already been committed by Beethoven? Undoubtedly his music often verges on kitsch – suffice it to mention the over-repetitive exploitation of the “beautiful” main motif in the first movement of his Violin Concerto.

Is Wagner, then, really the kitsch extension of what is worst in Beethoven? No, Wagner’s true achievement was precisely to provide a proper artistic form for what, in Beethoven, functions as kitschy excess.

From “Götterdammerung or the Reign of Human Love” by Slavoj Zizek


Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival

Frederic Spotts

Bayreuth is the oldest and most famous of the music festivals. Wagner aficionados know complete scores, are able to detect any mistakes pertaining to performances, reserve their seats five years in advance and are able to endure hard, wooden seats for six-hour performances. This book tells the tale of this venerable edifice, and thus the tale of Wagner and his heirs, who continue to run Bayreuth to this day. Ranges from its construction to Wagner’s specifications in the 1870s to the premiere of The Ring in 1876, through its debasement during the Third Reich—which prompted Thomas Mann to term it “Hitler’s court theater”—to the present. JAT

Publisher: Yale University
Paperback: 334 pages

The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner

Charles Osborne

Wagner, the man and his music, are known for the passionate feelings, both positive and negative, which they inspire. One of the best single volumes from among the vast plethora of writing about Wagner, The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner provides detailed synopses, musical analyses, and liberal quotations from Wagner’s extensive writings and those of his contemporaries (including Franz Liszt, Edvard Grieg, and King Ludwig II, of Bavaria), and places each of Wagner’s 13 operas within a greater biographical and historical context. The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner vividly portrays both the creator and his creations with a level of objectivity often missing from other works about a man whose immense talent may have only been matched by his ego. JAT

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 288 pages

My Life

Richard Wagner

A complete and authentic edition based on the manuscript was not published until 1963. Memoirs from Wagner’s birth in 1813 to 1864, a mid-career point where many of his greatest operas had yet to be written and the founding of Bayreuth was but a dream. As this accunt was composed principally for his wife Cosima and patron King Ludwig’s benefit, Wagner downplays the importance of past romantic liaisons and the value of career assistance received prior to Ludwig’s patronage: yet unflattering material in the memoir raises questions as to whether the memoir was in fact the malicious fabrication of his enemies. My Life has the feel of a lengthy and incredible oral saga spun by a master dramatist. JAT

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 802 pages

Penetrating Wagner’s Ring: An Anthology

Edited by John Louis DiGaetani

The Ring of the Niebelung has proved to be one of the most enduring of operatic spectacles. This book presents the writings of such noted exports as Robert Donington, Ernest Newman, Andrew Porter and Sir Georg Solti encompassing a broad range of thought and viewpoints. An excellent, annotated bibliography, an annotated discography, and a Ring chronology are also included. JAT

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 458 pages

The Perfect Wagnerite

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw wrote The Perfect Wagnerite in 1898 and continued to revise it until 1923. With intelligence and ample doses of wit, Shaw freely interprets The Ring through his strongly socialist political filter. JAT

Publisher: Dover
Paperback: 136 pages

Wagner on Music and Drama

Albert Goldman and Evert Sprinchorn

Culled from Wagner’s prose writings, this text condenses the master’s writings to a single volume of approximately 400 pages, arranged into eight major subdivisions. The editors manage to make Wagner’s thoughts both accessible and coherent while faithfully reflecting his intentions. “Art was his religion and the theater its temple. Moral and spiritual values existed for him only insofar as his art might benefit from them.” JAT

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 448 pages

Wagner: Race and Revolution

Paul Lawrence Rose

Argues that the German concept of revolution always contained a racial and anti-Semitic core. Dissecting and analyzing each of Wagner’s operas, the author presents a comprehensive collection of the anti-Semitic elements found within Wagner’s writings and operas. Links Wagner’s strain of anti-Semitism and revolution to the flowering of German Nationalism in the Third Reich. JAT

Publisher: Yale University
Hardback: 246 pages

Wagner’s “Ring” and Its Symbols: The Music and the Myth

Robert Donington

Often able to evoke both the excitement of the music and the action experienced in the theater, Wagner’s “Ring” and Its Symbols takes a Jungian approach in exploring The Ring and its mythological underpinnings. Includes an appendix of musical examples and selected motifs following the main discussion, allowing the reader to cross-refer to significant leitmotifs. JAT

Publisher: Faber and Faber
Paperback: 342 pages