Wagner Guilt

Below is another guest contribution from Tanner Cassidy, author of last month’s post on issues of programming in classical music. Here, Tanner addresses his conflicting relationship with Wagner, his music, and his complex legacy.

Tanner Cassidy

I have suffered tremendous loss in a time of tremendous loss. At the end of a string of announced cancellations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has canceled their production of the Ring Cycle. Plane tickets, years of payments, and careful planning it seems were all for not. Due to the way of the world right now, the creeping paranoia of cancellation has been brewing for some time, but the news finally arriving initially felt like I was finally beginning to accept this impending grief as reality.

However, even admitting this loss to any sort of public causes consternation to well up in my chest. I am ashamed of my proclivity for Wagner. Despite my best efforts, I am not comfortable with my choice of favorite composer. To even mention him as my favorite seems wrong, but before perhaps stating the obvious, I would like to explain the origin of this taste. 

I do not come from a musical family. I do not come from a well-off family. To be blunt, I do not come from a very cultured family. I hold no embitterment towards this, as how could I? It would be unfair to do such injustice to my parents, and they provided for me in ways that weren’t musical in nature. However, this meant I gleaned all of my musical taste from my middle and high school wind ensembles. A saxophone player, the world of orchestral and especially vocal music was foreign to me, and my mediocre schools lead to a lack of any variety or depth in repertoire. There was an exception that stuck out to me in my sophomore year of high school, however. My band director passed out Lucien Cailliet’s transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. We rehearsed, did a fair job at the concert, and put it away. The effect of this piece, however, took hold. I found in this piece my first taste of what orchestral and classical music could bring. It deepened the uncertain love of music I had at the time, and opened up the world of opera and chromaticism. In fact, the first theory paper I ever wrote was on this piece that I so treasured, and to this day it serves as a means of calming me down when I feel stressed. 

What I did not know was what this rabbit hole would lead me to. I was enamored by the music—the lush orchestration, shifting harmonies, beautiful motives, etc. What I did not pay attention to (initially) was the plot, the libretto, the context, or even the piece’s placement within Lohengrin. I found these things later, of course, but they were not a part of what attracted me in the first place. When I found other Wagner instrumental excerpts I experienced similar aesthetic delight. It was around this time that I discovered a smudge on the mental image of this music. When looking up more works by this strange German man, a biography began to appear. First, at a trickle, some of the more nefarious details of his life came to be. These were initially shallow, such as his habit for extramarital affairs and his reputation at the podium. However, at the moment, I had no cause for alarm. I knew next to nothing of music history, and he seemed at first glance as flawed as any other.

Over time—during my undergraduate days—I received more of the context. I learned of the grasp on Romantic music that he had, of his legacy on nineteenth-century culture as a whole. I learned of the impact of his legacy on early modernism, and how composers constantly sought to escape from under his shadow, as Beethoven before him. I learned of his prose writings, and his metaphysics and philosophy as inspired by Schopenhauer among others. I learned of his antisemitism, and his writings on this subject and the rhetoric he spread in his lifetime. I learned of how tyrants after his death appropriated his music, and took hearty inspiration from his own words to inspire a hegemony of fear. I learned of the dirty word his name is now, and how he is endemic of larger disciplinary problems facing arts organizations and academics alike. I learned guilt, I learned shame, I learned to hide. 

In this process, I have split myself in two. There’s the analytical side, the aesthetic side, the naïve side of me that listens with vigorous glee to some of my favorite orchestral and vocal music. This side cares not for the cleverness of his Stabreim, or the themes of nationalism, or the (re)creation of German myth; there is only the melody, the orchestration, the harmony. Then there’s the sober side, the side that knows of what attaching my name to this evil means. There are defenders of Wagner in the new millennium, of course. In fact, there are whole societies and books devoted to telling the lighter side of the story. And of course, the Bayreuth Festival is still happening every year to this day. And yet still, the cultural impact of the man has forever stained the memory of his music. 

Despite this, I have tried to be nuanced in my own work on Wagner. I have tried to acknowledge the sinister while still bringing out the novel, and have tried to balance justified critique with analytical reverence. I’ve since written papers on Tristan und Isolde, and was tremendously excited when my regional opera company announced a Ring Cycle four years ago. I immediately planned that wherever I was in the world, I would make it back to my hometown to see the whole thing, the whole damned seventeen-hour affair. I did this knowing what giving a Wagner opera my patronage after 1945 means, knowing now what I didn’t years ago. 

As such, the news that the Cycle was canceled has left me crestfallen and confused. On one hand, I need not bear the baggage of such financial and operatic extravagance, especially considering the dark shadow of his cultural and historical legacy. On the other, Wagner is the composer that inspired the intellectual path I have chosen, the composer who got me into music in the first place (of all the composers to stumble upon, why did it have to be him?). As such, it’s hard to so easily give him up. In a time of such unrest and turmoil, both in the world and in my personal life, I was looking forward to escaping into the Rhein, or recapturing that age of innocence where I could use “Elsa’s Procession” as a coping mechanism, removed from the burden of knowing. And yet now, I have been denied that pleasure. I’m now left with all the guilt and none of the aesthetic delight. 

Maybe some day I’ll grow out of this gnawing dichotomy of musical taste. I certainly haven’t found the balance yet, and I don’t know if I will any time soon. In any case, I still don’t know if Lyric canceling the Ring was a blessing or a curse.

—© Tanner Cassidy (cassidytanner@gmail.com)

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