This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest composers of all time , Richard Wagner , who is also without a doubt the most controversial figure in all of classical music . He died in 1883 , already extremely controversial for most of his life , and the controversy has never died down . Nor is it likely to any time in the future .
What made a mere composer, albeit a towering genius , into a bone of contention all over the world for nearly two centuries ? The answers are very complex . Wagner is a polarizing figure in classical music and opera ; people tend to love or hate his music ; few are indifferent to it . There is something about his music which fascinates and thrills some listeners yet also something which disturbs and repels many others .
It is rich, sensual music filled with sumptuous and multi-hued orchestration . But it can also be grandiose and rugged at times . From the dramatic viewpoint , Wagner was also a keen psychologist , and his principal characters are extremely complex and highly interesting people ,no mere cardboard characters and stock villains, heroes and maidens in distress . Unfortunately, his operas, or "music drams" as he preferred to call his mature stage works , are extremely long , fearsomely complex and extremely challenging to singers, conductors ,orchestras , directors and designers to produce . Some consider them too much of a muchness .
Ah, and yes, there's the inconvenient fact he happened to be the favorite composer of one Adolf Hitler , the over ambitious nobody from Austria who became perhaps the most evil person in world history . But is all this the fault of Wagner, who died six years before Hitler was born , as so many people assume ? I think not .
Yes, both were anti-semites . Wagner was frankly a pretty nasty felow . Monstrously egotistical , self-centered , manipulative, unscrupulous , a dead beat of the worse kind, womanizer and serial adulterer , etc. But when it comes to evil , he was no Hitler , who was determined to commit genocide against the Jews or Europe, and almost accomplished his monstrous goal , as well as slaughtering millions of others and leaving Europe in utter destruction and unspeakable misery at the time of his death .
Yes, Wagner disliked Jews very much , was always making nasty comments about them and wrote an appaling extended essay called "Judaism in Music", which accused Jews of being incapable of creating great art works of any kind, despite their enormous contributions to the arts in history . Yet , as the old cliche goes, some of his best friends were jews .
But did he advocate genociide against the Jews or any other group ? No. Did he advocate creating a totalitarian fascist police state of the kind Hitler and the *** created ? No. Basically , all he wanted to do in life was to reform opera , which he certainly did , create great operatic masterpieces and to promote them as best he could . Would he have approved of the monstrous cruelty,barbarity and brutality of Hitler and the *** ? I doubt it .
The problem is that Hitler read his own insane ideas into Wagner's music and dramas which simply aren't there . Take the stories of his operas ; there are no Jewish characters in them , no discussions of Jews or Judaism either positive or negative, and not a single anti-semitic statement by any of the characters in the librettos ,which he wrote entirely himself ,uliken most other opera composers ,who collabortated usually with professional librettists .
The plots of the operas have nothing to do with Judaism ,except for his last work,Parsifal, only indirectly . The word "Jew" cannot even be found in any of his librettos . His operas deal with love, hate , ambition , lust, greed for power, and the redemptive power of love, in the Greek sense of Agape . There is absolutley nothing in them which glorifies Aryan Germanic triumph over the Jews, although some critics and musicologists have read this into them, albeit in an oblique way .
Yet so many people have condemned Wagner's wroks for supposedly being anti-semitic and having had a baneful influence on Hitler and the *** . However, this makes about as much sense as blaming Jesus for the Spanish Inquisition , the Witch trials and executions and the violence of the Crusades .
It's about time that all those who love classical music and opera jettisoned all the baggage which comes with Wagner's music and learned to accept it on its own terms . But it will not be an easy task to bring this about .
Van Cliburn , who died last week at the age of 78 , was a penomenon of classical music ; the only classical musician who has ever had a New York ticker tape parade in his honor . He was the most famous concert pianist ever produced by America . Not the greatest , which is not to disparage him . No one can ever be the "greatest" of anything in classical music . There have been plenty of great American pianists such as the tragically short lived William Kapell , (1922-1953), who was killed in a plane crash , Leon Fleisher,who is still very much alive and active in his 80s , Peter Serkin ,son of the great pianist Rudold Serkin , John Browning , Ruth Laredo , to name only several .
But no other pianist has ever captured the imagination of the American public . In 1958 , at the height of the Cold War , the lanky young Texan pianist , who had studied at Juilliard , won Moscow's prestigious Tchaikovsky competition and was instantly catapaulted into classical superstardom . Renowned Rissian pianists such as the late Sviatoslav Richter and others were bowled over by his enormous talent and winning personality . The panel of distinguished Russian and teachers pianists and the Russian audiences were were stunned by his playing .
Cliburn seemed to have caused a one man thaw in the tense relations between the Soviet Union and America . He came home to America a national hero ,and his career was instantly launched . He began to record for the prestigious R.C.A. record label for which all his commercial recordings were made , and appeared with renowned conductors such as Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy and others with America's top orchestras . He specialized in the romantic piano repertoire of Chopin, Tchaikovsky,Rachmaninov, and Brahms, and these early recordings have been classics and best sellers for a half century .
His technique was prodigious and his sound was rich and plush ,never hard and metallic . His future seemed assured . His interpretations were warm and spontaneus ; he had the world at his feet . But unfortunately, after a number of euphoric years at the top of the classical music world, something went very wrong. Puzzlingly wrong . Cliburn seemed to have burned out . His playing has declined badly. Not in technique, but something was missing . The spark and bloom of youth was gone .
In 1978 , Cliburn decided to retire from public performing . What happened ? He remained very much involved with classical music and founded the now famous and prestigious Fort Worth piano competition in the Texas city where he lived . He had been born in Shreveport ,Louisiana but settled in Texas with his parents as a child and became a confirmed Texan . He never married and was known to be gay by his friends and associates ,but this did not become common knowledge until relatively late in his life . He had many friends in and out of the field and was out of the limelight but by nomeans reclusive .
The most plausible explanation for his burnout has been ascribed to his small repertoire and his lack of inclination to expand his repertoire regularly, something which many other great pianists have done . This may have led to the relative lack of luster of his later performances . Many other great pianists have performed everything from Bach ,Mozart, Beethoven , Chopin and Rachmaninov to works by living composers as well as exploring the less familiar corners of the piano repertoire .
In this respect he resembled the legendary German/Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber, (1930-2004) who had a similarly small repertoire of orchestral works and operas and rarely appeared in public unless he found the conditions for performing ideal . But Kleiber did not seemto burn out and remained somewhat active much longer .
So Cliburn's illustrious but truncated career appears to have been both a triumph and a tragedy . Who knows what he could have accomplished if he had not been the victim of burnout ?