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Wagner Scholar Takes Exception

Posted by acdtest on September 21, 2003

A Wagner Scholar Takes Exception

t seems my brief criticism of the principles underlying the planned productions of The Millennium Wagner Opera Company have raised the ire of Wagner scholar Derrick Everett. Writes Derrick (in a posting on the Usenet Wagner newsgroup):

Your “brief comments” are less than charitable. They also help to confirm that you have a defective understanding of Wagner’s dramas, the intentions that lie behind them and the intellectual context in which they were written.

There is a sense in which works of art take on a life of their own, once the artist has delivered them into the world. This does not mean, in my considered view, that the art-work can be or should be detached from the artist. I also reject the view that the artist is merely the channel of divine inspiration. Wagner’s works are his works, and those works are inseparable from the man.

My response:

I of course expected your disagreement with my view as your posts here [on the Wagner newsgroup] make clear just how much importance to the music-dramas you assign things biographical and intellectual in Wagner’s life. To my way of thinking that “…help[s] to confirm that you have a defective understanding of Wagner’s [music-]dramas,” as by such a view you are led into all sorts of false byways and intellectual maunderings regarding them.

As I’ve stated here [on the Wagner newsgroup] more than once, the music-dramas are *totally* self-contained works, and require no scholarly biographical or intellectual overlays or insinuations for their complete comprehension. And this is not to mention that where creative genius is concerned, especially creative genius of the transcendent sort which was Wagner’s, the ordinary and intellectual life of the creator counts for nothing in itself in the final products of that creative genius, all of the core of those products the result of mostly unconscious transformations, which transformations cannot possibly be “reverse engineered”; not even by the creator himself, much less ordinary folk, no matter how deep or probing their scholarship, or how convinced they are that the results of that scholarship lead to a deeper understanding of the genius’s creative output. Such a conviction on the part of the scholar is nothing more or other than a pathetic self-serving justification of the research time and labor expended; a justification wholly unnecessary as the scholarly work has its own rewards outside the artworks, and is its own justification.

I might have added, if somewhat ungenerously, that such scholarly researches are too often used by scholars, especially if they’re critics or reviewers as well, to make their discourse on the music-dramas seem wonderfully erudite and objectively verifiable; that last a great (if false) comfort to both scholar and audience alike. Such erudition, however, is wholly misplaced in such discourse, and as I noted, leads into all sorts of false byways (i.e., false to the music-dramas) which impede rather than promote real understanding. And while I can sympathize with the comfort afforded by objective verifiability, that comfort, as I above parenthetically noted, is false as well. As with all genuine works of art, once one goes beyond questions of craft and matters technical, there is no objectively verifiable anything. One might even say that’s a hallmark and necessary condition of all genuine art, and the very source of its resonant nature.

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The Millennium Wagner Project

Posted by acdtest on September 21, 2003

The Millennium Wagner Project

he first of a planned six-post series on what is called The Millennium Wagner Project, and it’s performing arm, The Millennium Wagner Opera Company, is kicked off here by weblogger CTD of Ionarts. It’s the first installment of an exclusive interview with the Washington, D.C. project’s founder, and executive and artistic director, Wagner scholar and musicologist Carol Berger. Says Ms. Berger about the project:

The Opera Company is a subset of its parent, the Millennium Wagner Project. This is very different from most opera companies like the Lyric Opera or the Metropolitan. They have a larger entity, which is a performing entity, an opera company, and within the Opera Company they have a subset, such as the Metropolitan Opera Guild or an education department. Those departments within the Opera Company do things such as education, lectures, community outreach, and fundraising, but everything is subservient to the performing entity, which is the Opera Company. The reason that I have structured the Millennium Wagner Opera Company in the exact opposite way of the standard set by these opera companies today, by having the opera company become a subset of the Project, has to do with something I believe spiritually about Wagner. It has to do with the message of Parsifal, because I believe that Parsifal was Wagner’s culminating statement on everything he had been building toward in all of his music dramas, what he called “fellow feeling” or “shared suffering,” this concept of Mitleid. “Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor” is the message of Parsifal, which means through the experience of sharing the suffering of others and doing something about it, we become enlightened. That is the subtext of all of our work.

[…]

That is what I think is Wagner’s primary message to the world, that people need to be sensitized to the suffering in the world and to go out and help people. Not to feel sorry for them: Mitleid is not pity or compassion, it is really shared suffering [literally “pain-with or with-suffering”-ed.]. If you read his late essays, especially the volume of essays called Religion and Art, you see that Wagner is involved in antivivisection societies, animal rights, the whole notion of suffering in the world. If Wagner were alive today, I believe he would be an activist in many social, economic, and environmental causes. So I have structured the performance company, the opera company, under the rubric of the Project because the Millennium Wagner Project, the outreach project, is the community outreach piece that does programs for the poor, the sick, the aged, the people I call sidelined in life, the ones you don’t usually see sitting in the seat next to you in an opera house, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, the vision-impaired. That is our larger cause, because in the end I am not looking for an egotistic product in which this is all about performance. My belief is that the greater purpose of Wagnerians in life is a spiritual purpose, an active selflessness, to go out and help people.

[all emphases mine]

These, unhappily, are the words not of a Wagnerian, but of a Wagnerite; one devoted principally to the man Wagner and his prose writings and libretti rather than to his music-dramas on their own terms, and it bodes nothing but ill for the work of the performance company. Few things are more destructive to the realization of the music-dramas than that they be driven by philosophical, social, and political “messages” and “concerns” rather than by considerations of art. With Wagner especially, the only important thing is the products of his colossal creative genius; his music-dramas. With the exception of his technical and professional writings, the rest is silence.

I look forward to reading more of this exclusive interview with Carol Berger on Ionarts.

UPDATE (21 September at 6:45 PM Eastern): A Wagner scholar takes exception.

Posted in Opera | Comments Off on The Millennium Wagner Project

Something Completely Different

Posted by acdtest on September 19, 2003

And Now For Something Completely Different

The Goose Girl At The Spring

A New But Unmodern Translation of The Tale
From The Collection of The Brothers Grimm

very long time ago there lived a king and queen who dwelled together contentedly, and they had two beautiful daughters.

One day it happened that the queen was delivered of a third daughter, and on the very day of her birth there appeared, uninvited, a crinkled and bent old woman who blessed the child, and said, “I give you a gift, most beautiful child. Whenever you weep, you shall weep tears of purest pearl, for princess though you may be, you will surely suffer much hardship and sorrow,” and with that, the old woman vanished as suddenly as she’d come. And thereafter, true to the old woman’s word, whenever the princess wept it was not tears that dropped from her eyes, but tiny tear-shaped pearls of matchless purity.

With each passing year the princess grew ever more beautiful, and she filled with delight all who beheld her. Her limbs were white as snow, her cheeks rosy as apple-blossom, and the radiance of her golden hair made even the very sun itself envious. Moreover, she was gentle of spirit and good of heart and the favorite of her father the king.

One day, when the princess had turned twelve, the king summoned his three daughters to come before his throne, and he said to them, “I know not when my last day will come; therefore I will today decide what each of you shall receive at my death. That all three of you love me I know full well, but by your own words, the one who loves me most shall receive most.”

The eldest princess said, “I love my father more than sweetest sugar.” And the second eldest said, “I love my father more than richest honey.” But the youngest said nothing, for her love for her father was so great she could think of nothing to which to compare it.

The king said to her, “Come, my dearest child, and tell me how much you love me,” and she replied, “I know not how to say it, and can compare my love to nothing.” But her father the king insisted she name something, and so she said at last, “The finest food does not please me without salt, therefore I love my father like salt.”

When the king heard this he was greatly angered, and said, “As you love me like salt, your love shall be repaid with salt.”

He then divided the kingdom between the two elder daughters, but ordered that a sack of salt be bound to the back of the youngest, and that she be led into the depths of the great forest, and there left to survive as best she could.

The queen, pale with horror, begged her husband the king to reconsider, but his anger was so great that he was deaf to her pleas. And so that night the young princess, a sack of salt bound to her back, was led into the great forest and there abandoned, and she wept so bitterly and abundantly that her path through the woods was strewn with a river of tiny tear-shaped pearls that shimmered in the moonlight like a ribbon of quicksilver.

A short time afterwards the king’s anger cooled, and he at last understood how deep was his youngest daughter’s love for him, and he repented the harsh sentence he’d pronounced on her. He ordered the great forest searched from border to border, but the young princess was nowhere to be found, and the king and queen, now both sick with grief, finally despaired of her life and mourned for her, and for themselves as well.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Clear and Present Danger

Posted by acdtest on September 19, 2003

Clear and Present Danger

onsider, please, the following observation.

The mark of a cultural highbrow nowadays is a cheerful readiness to embrace the lowbrow. In these playful, perverse, postmodern times, no one wants to be branded an elitist, especially the elites. There isn’t a junior professor of cultural studies who doesn’t dream of twitting his stodgy elders by showing that Madonna ranks with Mozart or that ”Star Wars” is an improvement on Wagner’s ”Ring” cycle.

—from a book review by Walter Kirn of Stephen King’s new “literary” opus, Everything’s Eventual.

That’s as neat an epitome of our present cultural environment as you’re ever likely to read. Is it any wonder, for instance, that today classical music radio, and the classical music recording industry are all but moribund? That National Public Radio — that thirty-years-old bastion of high-grade programming presumed free from the strictures and pressures of ratings and money-grubbing commerce — has, for the express purpose of attracting more listeners and thereby increasing donations, recently made the decision to dump a major portion of its cultural programming in favor of more news, news-talk, and expanded coverage of the pop culture scene? That the previously refined, uniquely informative, high-minded, and at times fairly lofty Sunday Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, our national newspaper of record, a year or so ago was deprived of its supremely qualified and erudite editor in a shakeup that saw him replaced by one devoted to (even) greater coverage of things pop-cultural?

No, no wonder at all. The rampantly promiscuous equalitarianism, and ferociously adamant populism so insidiously infecting every domain of our cultural world today looks on such developments as a Good Thing; a movement in the proper and necessary direction, and long overdue. Like the first narcotic rush of a powerful opiate, it feels so surpassingly right, good, true, and pleasurable that its ultimately poisonous effects are unthought of, unseen, even unimagined.

We’re all in the deepest sort of trouble, and seemingly unconscious of the corrupting danger that threatens not merely from all sides, but from deep within our intellectual and spiritual selves; a danger that if unchecked will eventually overwhelm all that’s lastingly valuable and nourishing in our cultural life, the resulting ineluctable impoverishment of which will sound the death knell even of our very civilization itself.

Alarmist? Overwrought? Not a bit of it. When we today have two generations of young (and now no-longer-quite-so-young) people who are all but totally ignorant of the great music and literature that for centuries past have nourished and informed our intellectual and spiritual lives, generations who imagine that pop and rock music; fantasy, sci-fi, and other genre novels; and even Spiderman comic books are what culture is all about — an imagining that today is actually given academic imprimatur at the university level, and sanction by the critical and cultural elite — you may be certain there’s much about which to be alarmed. It’s not that such pop-cultural artifacts are in themselves harmful or evil, but rather that they’re a danger when elevated to a level in the hierarchy of things cultural to which substantively and aesthetically they’ve no rightful or justifiable claim.*

An elitist view, you say, and undemocratic. Why, yes. It’s indeed both. But so-called high culture (to distinguish it from the popular sort) has always been elitist and undemocratic, and can be nothing other. There’s just no getting around it. Great Art in all its forms is, and has always been, an elitist and undemocratic enterprise, not by design but by nature. To condemn it on those grounds is as inapt and mindless as to condemn, say, Julia Roberts (or you-pick-the-beauty) for being fabulously beautiful when, overwhelmingly, most others are not.

And so having declared the problem, what, then, is the solution? I can suggest only a beginning, and that is a return to the cultural sanity that existed prior to the grotesque populist cultural upheaval that began in the mid-1960s as an adjunct to that era’s then needful if excessive political upheaval.

But that return can begin only when the genuine cultural and intellectual elite — i.e., those who by native intellect, education, and experience know the Real Deal and its what for — drop their currently fashionable pose of being champions of the common, and again start telling it as it really is rather than as the common man wants it to be, and perhaps even as the elite themselves wish it were.

As I say, it’s only a beginning, but as with all journeys a first step must be taken if the journey is to be embarked upon at all.

*Here, for egregious example, is this just hot off the wire.
Under pressure from publishers to shake up its sleepy image, the organization that presents the National Book Awards is planning to give its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to Stephen King.

Mr. King’s selection is the first time that the organization, the National Book, has awarded its medal to an author best known for writing in popular genres like horror stories, science fiction or thrillers. Very little of Mr. King’s work would qualify as literary fiction.

Mr. King joins a list of previous recipients that includes John Updike, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.

Q.E.D.
UPDATE 1 (17 September at 2:44 AM Eastern): Weblogger Alexandra of Out Of Lascaux comments.
UPDATE 2 (17 September at 2:45 AM Eastern): Reader Liz L sends a thoughtful eMail wherein she says,

…it seems to me that you think that the “common person” doesn’t have any real right to join the elites in their ongoing discussion, but simply has to accept the elite’s judgment. […] …do you see any room for a well-informed layperson to take some part in the debate? Do “native intellect” and “experience,” for instance, compensate to some extent for one’s lack of college degrees?

My response:

It’s not something so trivial as the possession of college degrees that qualifies one to be considered among the elite (most such are proles through and through). It’s one who by dint of native intellect, education (however obtained), and experience, has made one of his life’s priorities the study, understanding, and appreciation of the arts that determines his elite (as opposed to expert) status; that lifts him above the I-like-it-and-therefore-it’s-art common herd. In my piece I was suggesting that those who’ve made the arts their life’s work — that’s to say, the experts — must necessarily take the lead in turning things around, the first step being, I further suggested, that they drop their current idiot pose of being champions of the common. In terms of the ongoing conversation there’s room galore for all the elite, not merely the experts, and the more the better.

I trust the above will clarify the distinction I make between an elite and an expert.

UPDATE 3 (19 September at 8:06 AM Eastern): Weblogger J.W. of Forager 23 comments, on which comment I should remark that J.W. seems to have read my use of the term elite to indicate an economic or social class. As I thought was made clear in the piece, and made even more specifically clear in Update 2 above, my use of the term, as well as my use of the term common, has nothing whatsoever to do with economic or social class.

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Clear and Present Danger

Playing Both Sides Of The Street

Posted by acdtest on September 12, 2003

Playing Both Sides Of The Street

rint journalist and weblogger Terry Teachout of About Last Night again weighs in on the Frank Lloyd Wright / Architecture debate, this time in an attempt to play both sides of the street.

Writes Terry,

I mention all this [his prior exclusively utilitarian critical comments on the new New York concert venue, Zankel Hall] because of the recent intramural squabble over the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which some arts bloggers like and others loathe. Now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool aesthete who would dearly love to live in an exceptionally beautiful house and would willingly put up with a significant amount of nuisance value (i.e., leaky roofs) in order to do so…but not an unlimited amount. To put it as drastically as possible, I wouldn’t want to live in Fallingwater if it didn’t have indoor plumbing-and I might well think twice about it if there wasn’t a good place to hang my John Marin etching, either.

To buttress that position, Terry quotes the famous art critic Clement Greenberg:

There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.

concerning which quote Terry opines,

I think these words ought to be done in cross-stitch and hung in the homes of artists and art-lovers everywhere, if not necessarily in the living room. Art is not the most important thing in the world. Earthly beauty is not an absolute value.

Now, I’m not at all (and by design) familiar with Greenberg’s writings except by reputation (and first-rate it is, too), but that above quote of his has got to be among the most mindless — or at very least, disingenuous — things he ever wrote. For someone who loves art, what could life be absent art except deathly arid, and very, very unhappy. It’s not a matter of art “solv[ing]” anything. It’s a matter, for such a person, of art being the very thing that makes life worth living, to express it in a decidedly banal and inartistic way. Such a person has no choice in the matter as I’m certain Greenberg knew, and as I’ve no doubt whatsoever was the case of Greenberg himself.

Greenberg’s exhortation contains its very own refutation, and I suggest Terry rethink his own exhortation regarding it.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Architecture | Comments Off on Playing Both Sides Of The Street

How Doth Your City Grow?

Posted by acdtest on September 10, 2003

How Doth Your City Grow?

hat can one say about such wrongheaded and purblind thinking as is displayed in this post by weblogger and urban design zealot David Sucher of City Comforts Blog except to say that it would be sad were it not so appalling, coming as it does from someone who professes a deep and abiding concern with the built environment, and evangelizes assiduously on its behalf

Says David, whose highest aspiration for cities is that they be “interesting” and “comfortable,” and “pleasant places to live,” and who perceives a dichotomy in the building of cities where one must choose between architectural genius and “good rules”:

So many people use the word [genius] in relation to architects such as Wright or Gehry…. Those two might be geniuses or might not; who cares? […] It is not genius which creates cities worthy of humanity but adherence to time-tested rules. Oh genius is OK, so long as it knows the rules well-enough to know if, how and when to break them. And so long as it has sufficient self-confidence to not need to impress by breaking the rules unless there is a good reason.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In a word, everything. Neither rules, time-tested or otherwise, nor architectural geniuses create “cities worthy of humanity.” The urban needs and desires of people create cities. The notion that architectural geniuses create cities is a delusion of that most virulent of architectural types, the ideologically obsessed architect-visionary; and the notion that rules, time-tested or otherwise, create cities, a delusion of rule-obsessed urban planner types with their insufferable bourgeois arrogance born of the conceit that bourgeois concerns are the measure of things, other concerns being but eccentricities to be more or less tolerated.

But the urban needs and desires of people need satisfaction in concrete terms. And for that architects, urban planners, and even cut-rate commercial builders are required, all with their parts to play, and the overarching governing principle: Sutor, ne supra crepidam!

David imagines rules are what’s really important, but he confuses what’s important with what’s merely necessary. Painters, for instance, require well-made canvas, but there’s nothing important about well-made canvas, or about the mechanics who make it. Both are merely necessary. What’s important are the painter and what he paints on that canvas. And if the painter is a painter of genius, well, so much the better and more important will be what he paints.

The work of makers of well-made canvas is to produce a product that, consistent with well-made canvas, presents the least amount of impediment to the painter in his work. And when the canvas-maker’s mechanic’s work is done, he disappears from the picture forever, so to speak, becoming an anonymous and invisible entity thereafter.

Just so urban planners. They must do their necessary mechanic’s work by laying out a city’s grid, and establishing the most minimally restrictive building rules possible consistent with the needs of present and foreseeable future populations in terms of traffic flows, utilities, transport, zoning regulations, etc. — explicit rules, compliance with which can be ascertained with little or no ambiguity — and then disappear forever so that the important work — the design and building of buildings — can begin, all design decisions concerning which, in compliance with the minimally restrictive building rules, to be made exclusively by the only persons entitled to make them: individual architects, builders, and their clients. And if an architect also happens to be an architect of genius into the bargain, well, so much the better for his clients and for the city that emerges.

In that way, and in that way only, do vital, exciting, nourishing, and enriching cities get built and grow; messy and complex affairs where the buildings run the full gamut from the tawdry, to the quotidian utilitarian, to the grand work of art. The one prescription for sure death for any city is to have individual building design decisions intrusively determined or overseen by rule-besotted urban planner types, or worse, visionary, architect ideologues playing at being urban planners, and so making rules that impose their singular visions on an entire city.

You want great cities, “cities worthy of humanity”? Then insist the rule-makers recognize their proper place and disappear forever when their minimally restrictive and merely necessary mechanic’s work is done, leaving architects, builders, and their clients free to get on with the really important work of building a city.

UPDATE (10 September at 5:30 PM Eastern): David Sucher responds.

Posted in Architecture | Comments Off on How Doth Your City Grow?

Firsthand Witness

Posted by acdtest on September 7, 2003

Firsthand Witness — Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’

ate in 1872, four years before the first Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner wrote to longtime member of his inner circle Heinrich Porges,

I have you in mind for a task which will be of the greatest importance to the future of my enterprise [the Bayreuth Festival generally, and the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen specifically]. I want you to follow all my rehearsals very closely…and to note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our [sic!] work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.

The result was the book Die Bühnenproben zu den Bayreuther Festspielen des Jahres 1876 (The Stage Rehearsals for the Bayreuth Festival of 1876), which was first published in installments in the official Wagner journal, the Bayreuther Blätter (1881 and 1896), and the English translation of which (by Robert L. Jacobs) was first published in 1983 by Cambridge University Press under the title, Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’ (unhappily, now long out of print).

That Porges was thoroughly qualified to make such a record is beyond question. He was not only a long-time member of Wagner’s inner circle, but an expert musician and music critic, a learned scholar, and intimately familiar with the score of the Ring. And as for trusting what he wrote, it goes without saying that before first publication (in the Blätter) every part of his work was vetted either by Wagner himself, or by the Blätter‘s editor, Wagner factotum Hans von Wolzogen.

I’ve just finished reading a copy of that Cambridge University Press translation (literally a copy; I spent an hour at the library Xeroxing the entire book as there was not available even so much as a single copy of the volume on the used book market), on which there here follow a few random thoughts and impressions.

My first thought is that no conductor, no producer, no director, no singer, no scenic designer, no anyone ought to be permitted to have anything to do with a production of the Ring without first committing to memory and total understanding what Porges records in this book, and then swearing a sacred oath to never, on pain of death, depart from what’s there written, remembering that what Porges recorded were Wagner’s directions and insights on the Ring and its performance, not his own. I take special pleasure in saying this as everything I read in this book accords perfectly with my own independently arrived at views, and I’m not in the least above a little self-congratulatory backslapping on that count.

Some examples (this on the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the Ring‘s first music-drama):

…An instruction given by Wagner for the performance of the main theme illustrates this difference between mere display of feeling and a truly artistic delivery [quotes the opening theme from the Rheingold Prelude]. He wanted the high notes of the horns, especially the climactic G of the widely arched melody, to be played “very tenderly and with sustained softness”, and this to apply to every subsequent repetition. The players must consciously counteract here the natural tendency to make a crescendo on a rising progression; only then will the figure have the desired quality of ideal freedom. Furthermore, sustained softness will serve to clarify the overlapping deliveries of the theme in the [opening] complicated passage for [these] eight horns.

Regarding the orchestral prelude as a whole, built on a single E flat major triad, Wagner insisted that its huge crescendo should throughout create the impression of a phenomenon of nature developing quite of its own accord — so to say, an impersonal impression. Nothing must be forced; there must be no sense of a conscious purpose imposing itself.

Wagner gave especial attention to the harmonic figurations of the strings’ accompaniment to Woglinde’s joyous song just after the rise of the curtain. They should be as pianissimo as possible. The unexpected conversion of a powerful crescendo into a piano created the effect of a transformation of the waves of water into a single human figure…

[author’s footnote]: The device, frequently used by Beethoven, of a sudden pianissimo after a crescendo is of the utmost stylistic significance in that it can be regarded — so it seems to me — as a direct expression of that control of form over matter which Schiller held to be the supreme function of art.

[all emphases mine]

(Regarding my above bolded portions: The “sustained softness” and “subsequent repetitions” comments refer solely to the eight horns, which begin p [pianissimo], and after bar 40 or so are all marked immer p [always pianissimo] which remains in force for the entire Prelude. The “huge crescendo…throughout” comment [i.e., huge in extent, and huge throughout as the crescendo builds slowly from the very beginning of the Prelude to its end, and builds almost solely as a consequence of Wagner’s preternaturally brilliant orchestration even though that slowly-built, Prelude-long crescendo is nowhere notated] refers to the orchestra overall, excluding the eight horns. The “powerful crescendo” comment refers to the entire orchestra for the final seven bars of the Prelude, and to the final bar opening onto Scene 1 in particular, where crescendi are actually notated.*)

As invaluable a record as this book is, however, one cannot shake the feeling that Porges has shortchanged posterity in recording but the tiniest fraction of what he could have recorded, thereby largely failing Wagner’s mandate to “…follow all my rehearsals very closely…and…note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.”

Porges’s failure notwithstanding, this volume is the only systematic firsthand account we have of Wagner’s own handling of the musical and dramatic performance sides of this monumental undertaking, and we ought to be grateful for even small such gifts. (There are other more or less desultory firsthand accounts of the first Bayreuth Festival by various members of the production team and cast from the perspective of their own specialties, but none of the systematic nature of Porges’s effort.)

Porges’s record was quite rightly written for working professionals — moreover, for working professionals already thoroughly familiar with the scores and texts of the Ring operas — and so what Porges records (with copious musical quotations) are Wagner’s directions which are supplement to the directions notated in the scores themselves, which scores are already more densely notated with musical directions than any other pre-20th-century score of my experience.

What strikes one most about Wagner’s directions is how often he directs subtle measure-by-measure (sometimes even note-by-note, and sometimes not-so-subtle) adjustments of the “main tempo,” and even of the notated rhythm, in order to achieve the dramatic and psychological effects he desired. That’s in perfect keeping with Wagner’s perennial excoriation (in his writings) of those conductors he referred to as “quadrupeds,” with their foursquare readings of his scores.

One example from the book is particularly telling in this respect.

Porges records Wagner’s handling of Siegfried’s Trauermusik (funeral music; from Act III of Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final Ring music-drama) thus:

The unison passage [here Porges quotes the opening two measures of the Trauermusik proper] requires especial attention. By making a powerful crescendo and slightly altering the time-values of the rests to make them uneven, thereby bringing them alive, Wagner gave those two bars a quite extraordinary significance…. Regarding the performance of the funeral music — that unique heroic lament in the style of the ancient epics — Wagner gave no further directions. To a creation such as this, those words of Goethe, “If you do not feel it, never will you find it,” are more than usually relevant.

Just so, and that intuitive “feel[ing] it” by conductors of what’s hidden beneath the markings of the printed score, so to speak, is precisely what I’ve elsewhere and often characterized as their possessing the “Wagner Gene”.

It was of some interest to me to note (as well as a source of some pride as it again confirms my thinking independently arrived at) that of the available recordings of the Ring with which I’m most familiar, it’s clear that Solti has read Porges’s record, and notated everything said there into his own copy of the score, so perfectly does he follow Wagner’s directives as recorded in this book; while Karajan, Böhm, and even Levine (whose Wagner readings are nothing if not meticulous) have either not read that record, or reading it, have largely ignored it, or were otherwise incapable of incorporating its directives into their own performances.

In summing up, I can’t urge too strongly those with more than a passing or listener’s interest in the Ring to somehow acquire a copy of this invaluable record, if for no reason other than to gain some small insight into the inner workings of the colossal musical and dramatic genius responsible for the creation of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

*Those wanting a fuller explanation of the dynamics of the Prelude may read my analysis here.

Posted in Books, Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Firsthand Witness

New Equalitarianism

Posted by acdtest on September 2, 2003

New Equalitarianism

‘d intended to bypass commenting on the following bit of tendentious nonsense by weblogger J.W. of Forager 23 beyond my extended quip (in Update #4 of this piece) only because commentary is pretty much a pointless exercise. All those with their wits about them will not be taken in by J.W.’s slick attempt to change the subject in his bid to pitch the New Equalitarian message as it concerns the arts, and the witless will not be aware a pitch was being made, and won’t understand the argument to begin with.

But it’s been a lazy holiday weekend, so why not.

I write a piece extolling the transcendent genius of Frank Lloyd Wright (my piece linked above), and J. W. sees it as an attempt by me at “…defending the structural problems of Wright’s buildings[!],” and

…a perfect example of the silliness of smart people who blindly cling to the modernist corpse. […] A.C., like many other worshippers at the altar of Frank Lloyd Wright, has turned to high modernism in order to fill his spiritual void.

And there I was thinking I was lauding the genius of a single individual. Silly me. I should have realized I was actually lauding an entire movement and its ideology.

Well, J.W. saw right through my little self-deceiving imposture. Still, it’s strange to discover I was in reality lauding modernism and the modernist ideology considering it’s been my lifelong conviction as an adult that all aesthetic movements and ideologies of any stripe whatsoever are products of the herd mind and of the impotent, and are never by any chance taken in-earnest part in by those of authentic genius who ineluctably go their own unique and individual way as they cannot but help doing, although they and their ways may become the anchors of movements and ideologies by others after the fact.

But, then, the modernist movement and its ideology per se are not what really upset J.W. What really upsets him we learn in his very next sentence.

But modernism, like Marxism, is a cult…catering to the desire for power of a small enlightened elite.

And there you have it in all its postmodern glory. It’s the goals — nay, the very existence — of those evil elitists and their evil elitism that rankle so. And they rankle not on Marxist principles either (which, after all, are passé as Marxism is but a cult), but on the principles of the New Equalitarianism (which because unnamed and unidentified except by me is presumably neither cult nor movement nor ideology), adhering to which principles

Most of us have decided that it’s wiser to spend the tremendous amount of time and energy needed to make people see the value of unreadable books, unlistenable music, and unlivable buildings [i.e., the presumptive products of modernism] [by instead] writing great books for people to read, composing profound music for people to listen to, and making beautiful buildings for people to live in.

Uh-huh. Books like [fill in the title of any book by any one of the popular genre fiction writers], music like [fill in the title of any piece of music by any one of the popular New Age composers], and buildings like [fill in the name of any building or development made by any “architect” who produces comfy, picture-pretty copies of historical — or as it’s more, um, delicately referred to, “traditional” — building designs].

Right. And don’t forget rock music is as much art as anything Bach wrote, and Joyce’s writings have nothing over, say, Spiderman comic books as art. They’re just different.

Got it.

Indeed I do.

UPDATE (4 September at 3:02 PM Eastern): J.W. of Forager 23 makes thoughtful and well-reasoned response, with much of which (but not all; characterizations of my “extremism” in particular) I agree.

Posted in Architecture, Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on New Equalitarianism

On Matters Cosmic & Atomic

Posted by acdtest on September 2, 2003

On Matters Cosmic, Atomic, and Everything In-between

ince childhood I’ve been something of a mathophobe, a non-word I coined to signify a psychoneurotic condition wherein one virtually breaks into a cold sweat on encountering any mathematical symbol less familiar than those of the four arithmetic operations. That pathetic condition notwithstanding, I’ve a deep fascination with the principles, derivation, and implications of the fundamental laws that govern the physical processes of the universe. As all such laws are expressed in the symbolic and abstract language of mathematics, indulging that fascination makes life for all such as myself a tough proposition. We must either stoically and painfully thread our way through expert accounts of physical theory, gleaning what we can along the way, or content ourselves with reading pop expositions which mostly simplify to the point of almost deception while producing in us a false sense of real comprehension.

Every once in a very rare while, however, there appears in print a treatment of this esoteric domain that meets the impossible challenge of explaining substantively in nonmathematical language the principles of a physical theory in a way that neither overwhelms the nonmathematical intellect, nor simplifies to pap the theory’s inherent complexities. My first experience of such a treatment was Lincoln Barnett’s 1948 (rev., 1957) The Universe and Dr. Einstein, a slender volume that substantively lays out the principles, derivation, and implications of special and general relativity in nonmathematical language so lucid, and even at times poetic, that even a mathophobe such as myself emerges with a genuine (if non-functional) understanding of Einstein’s revolutionary and world-transforming contributions to our knowledge of the universe and The Way Things Really Work.

In its scant 118 pages, The Universe and Dr. Einstein skillfully takes the reader from Einstein’s first thought experiments leading to the mind-bending principles and implications of special relativity (and the world-famous E=mc^2), through the equally mind-bending principles and implications of general relativity, all the while sparing the reader no fundamental or important details, but setting everything up and spelling it out in clear nonmathematical language completely understandable to any educated and interested layman.

An authentic tour de force, unhappily now out of print, but sometimes available through the secondhand market (see link above).

But relativity is old-hat theory today. Today the Big Thing is something called string theory.

And just what is string theory all about? Everything — quite literally. It’s an attempt at solving a problem Einstein spent the last quarter century of his life trying to solve: The Theory Of Everything, called by Einstein a Unified Field Theory; a series of mutually consistent equations that seamlessly integrate, first, the forces of gravity and electromagnetism, and ultimately the theories of the very large (general relativity), and the very small (quantum mechanics). Einstein failed in his attempt, and half a century later string theory took up the challenge, and ran with it.

Crudely and briefly (very crudely and very briefly), the problem is that while general relativity explains with astonishing accuracy and surpassing elegance the physical dynamics of things macrocosmic, it runs into problems when applied to the microcosm. More precisely, general relativity seems fundamentally at a loss to explain the dynamics of phenomena operating at the most ultramicroscopic subatomic scale where nothing but the most untoward weirdness prevails. Quantum mechanics, however, works splendidly at providing such explanations, if not quite as neatly and unequivocally as general relativity works at explaining phenomena at the scale of the macrocosm.

So what’s the problem? When one needs explanations of things macrocosmic one uses the equations of general relativity, and for explanations of things at a very tiny subatomic scale, the equations of quantum mechanics. No problem at all, really. Except that it’s intellectually, and even intuitively offensive to imagine the universe operating in two fundamentally different and incompatible ways depending only on the scale of the thing in question. If theory says it does, then that’s the signal — the red-light, alarm-bell signal — that something is amiss with theory, not the universe. What’s needed is a theory that accounts for all physical phenomena in a mutually consistent way regardless of scale. The difficulty is that when a marriage of the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics is attempted, the results are absurd. More specifically, the marriage of the equations of the two theories gives infinity as an answer when such an answer is pure gibberish (e.g., an infinite probability).

Enter string theory. It seems to have the promise of explaining all physical phenomena in a mutually consistent way regardless of scale by having the ability to alter the equations of relativity in just the right way so that a marriage with the equations of quantum mechanics becomes possible, and it begins by replacing the ultimate-lower-size, zero-dimension point particles of classical theory (i.e., relativity and quantum mechanics) with spatially extensible, one-dimensional vibrating filaments or strings whose extensible size is, on average, on the order of what is called the Planck length, an incredibly tiny number (10^-33).

Talk about mind-bending! String theory is all mind-bending stuff — way more so than general relativity — and horrendously complicated (as opposed to horrendously complex, which it also is), and seems to a mathophobic layman such as myself incredibly messy, something which, with the help of the guiding hand of Lincoln Barnett, relativity most emphatically does not.

But help for laymen such as myself is at hand. Brian Greene, in his 1999 book, The Elegant Universe, attempts to do in 448 pages for string theory what Barnett did in 118 for relativity. Greene’s not quite as successful as Barnett, but he’s successful enough, and for laymen wanting to understand the basic principles of string theory I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was in fact by virtue of Greene’s guiding hand that I was able to write with confidence what I’ve here written concerning string theory.

(Actually, it’s not quite fair of me to suggest that Greene is less successful than was Barnett. String theory — all five of them — is a theory still in the throes of building, its equations so complex that none has ever successfully been put in precise form, physicists having to make due with approximations, while relativity was a fully worked out, many-times tested, and fairly mature theory by the time Barnett set to tackling an explanation of its complexities for laymen. All things considered, Greene does a more than admirable job of explaining what he sets out to explain.)

I confess I’ve a secret wish that string theory turns out to be the wrong way to go. I intuitively don’t like its messy, complicated feel, in the same way I intuitively dislike the probabilistic basis of quantum mechanics. (I’m in good company vis-à-vis the latter. Einstein was unhappy with quantum mechanics for the same reason. It was what provoked his famous, “I cannot believe God plays dice with the universe.”) But perhaps when the precise equations of string theory (all five of them) are finally derived, solved, and unified under the construct called M-theory (don’t even think of asking!), those equations and what they describe will prove string theory as elegant and, more importantly, as inevitable as relativity. If that day ever comes — and the smart money is betting that it’s a matter of when, not if — man will truly have succeeded, in the words of Stephen Hawking, in reading the very mind of God.

Neat trick, that, and a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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