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March 2013 - Posts

Why Does Richard Wagner Get Blamed For Everything 200 Years After He Was Born ?

   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 . 

Posted: Mar 18 2013, 10:14 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013 ) An Appreciation .

   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 ?

     

    

Posted: Mar 04 2013, 11:18 PM by the horn | with no comments
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