Twilight of the Gods

by Chris Bertram on May 5, 2005

Nearly a week has passed since I endured the finale of Phyllida Lloyd’s Ring for the English National Opera . I wrote up earlier episodes on CT, so I ought to complete the job. Kathleen Broderick was just amazingly good as Brunnhilde and the orchestra—under the direction of Paul Daniels—played very well. But producer Phyllida Lloyd should be shot, or worse.

Wagnerphobes are going to be mystified at the complaint that a production of the Ring was silly. “Isn’t it always?” Kieran might say. Well, up to a point. This production of Twilight of the Gods was really very silly indeed, but also trite, one-dimensional, incoherent and offensive. I have no objection to modern dress productions of opera or Shakespeare, to radical changes of location or period. That’s fine. If a producer can give us a new insight into a work of art, or make it come alive for a modern audience, that is ok by me. But this wasn’t anything like that.

It was gratuitous and exploitative. (This was signalled before the performance even started by the programme, which contained photographs of the Twin Towers burning, a severed hand amidst post-Tsunami debris, and cows being burnt in Britain’s last episode of foot-and-mouth disease.) The culmination of this urge to grab hold of any random news image or bit of popular culture for shock value was the portrayal of Brunnhilde as a suicide bomber in Act 3. In between we were treated to Siegfried as rhinestone cowboy and Brunnhilde as Judy Garland (opening of Act 1) and Hagen as game-show host (wedding in Act 2). Why does Judy Garland metamorphose into a Palestinian suicide bomber?! I have absolutely no idea.

Utter crap.

{ 12 comments }

1

David All 05.05.05 at 3:26 pm

Concerning Wagner I agree with following statements:
1) Mark Twain, “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds”.
2) Woody Allen, “Wagner gives you the urge to invade Poland.”(From the movie, “Manhatten Murder Mystery”)
3) Adolf Hitler, “He who does not know Wagner does not know Germany!” Include the last since whatever that Monster knew, he definitely knew his fellow Krauts or at least those of his time!

2

Liadnan 05.05.05 at 5:53 pm

Other than the orchestra and Broderick, how was it musically?
I tend to close my eyes at ENO..,,

3

Jerry 05.05.05 at 6:28 pm

Philistine dog!

4

Barry Freed 05.05.05 at 10:27 pm

Benettöndämmerung?

5

Doug 05.06.05 at 12:20 am

Chris, if you’re still working on reading German, see if you can scare up a copy of Loriot’s Der Ring an einem Abend. It’s a droll sendup of the dramatics in the cycle.

Loriot in general is very funny, and passing knowledge of one or two quotes will win you big points for understanding German culture.

6

tad brennan 05.06.05 at 6:58 am

“Why does Judy Garland metamorphose into a Palestinian suicide bomber?”

Now if someone can’t make a great joke out of *that* set-up, I don’t know what the world of bad taste is coming to.

7

Laon 05.06.05 at 10:33 am

I know David All wasn’t being all that serious, but it’s worth remembering that Hitler also said:

“I love Richard Wagner’s music. Must I close my ears to it because he was a pederast?”
Adolf Hitler, September 1932.

[_I Knew Hitler : The Story of a Nazi who Escaped the Blood Purge_ Kurt G. W. Ludecke, Jarrolds, London, 1938, page 429.]

In short, Hitler liked the sound that Wagner’s music made, but didn’t care all that much about the person who made the music.

Of course you can pick and choose quotations to suit your case. The reality is that there were some things that Hitler and other Nazis admired about Wagner. Those things seem to be what they meant when they praised Wagner in public: private sources like Goebbels’ diaries indicate that they admired the time Wagner had endured poverty and triumphed over extreme and prolonged adversity, and they admired that he had been an innovator in his field.

On the other hand they didn’t admire Wagner’s spendthrift luxury, his money-grubbing, and all that unmanly behaviour with the huge orders for silks and satins and perfumes, not to mention his left-wing, feminist and Jewish friends and associates: that aspect of Wagner made Goebbels and other senior Nazis, including Hitler, quite uncomfortable. And there was Wagner’s politics: the left-wing rabble-rousing, the pacifism, and much else. Not even Wagner’s antisemitism was all that comfortable for the Nazis, as Yehuda Bauer pointed out. Wagner was an antisemite but he called for Jewish and non-Jewish Germans to become “one and indivisible”: to assimilate.

But you can go further past playing “trump the quotation”. You can, for example, remember that the Nazi Party hierarchy much preferred Beethoven; that Liszt was the composer used for the signature tune for Nazi broadcasts; that Hitler’s favourite composer in the end was not Wagner but Lehar; that the Nazis banned _Parsifal_ in 1939, principally because of the pacifist content, though Goebbels also complained that it was “too pious”; that they asked for no further productions of the _Ring_ cycle after 1942 (it seems Wagner’s message finally got through: people who seek power lose everything they love, and the ability to love; and they experience ignominious downfall); and that immediately after the Nazis taking power, and control of the operatic repertoire, performances of Wagner opera reduced in number.

This withdrawal of Wagner from the German operatic repertoire continued and accelerated throughout the Nazi period, 1933-1945. The operatic composers who lost favour under the Nazis were (1) Wagner, followed by (2) Mozart. The composers who rose in frequency of performance while the Nazis controlled the opera houses were (1) Lortzing, and (2) Puccini. Verdi also did well. I don’t think this was really because the Nazis understood Wagner’s messages enough to see how hostile they were to their enterprise. It was more that his operas were complex, hard, and made people think: their disappearance from the repertoire was part of a general dumbing down of culture under Nazi rule.

So if you want to associate an operatic composer as the soundtrack of Nazism, the on-the-ground reality as revealed by the actual performance statistics would suggest that Verdi’s the Nazi’s man, followed by Lortzing. Mainstream Nazi taste in opera might come closer to Terry Teachout’s tastes and sensibilities than to, for example, mine.

Coming back to _Götterdämmerung_, the last time Hitler is known to have listened to music from that opera, it was after the collapse in Russia and the funeral of a senior Nazi. The funeral music from _Götterdämmerung_ was played but Hitler apparanly couldn’t stand it. Goebbels noted in his _Diary_, in 1943, that the Wagner music made Hitler “upset”. Thereafter Hitler didn’t listen to much Wagner, according to the people around him in the last years.

It seems that Hitler figured out, rather belatedly, that an anarchist pacifist ratbag like Wagner was not exactly on his side. Wagner was an antisemite, as we know, just as we ought to know this about a lot of other cultural figures, but don’t: but there was more to being a Nazi, or proto-Nazi, than being an antisemite.

So: the _Ring_ came under a partial performance ban, and Hitler seems to have been shaken by _Götterdämmerung_ in particular. No surprise: its message, on the subject of seeking power, is profoundly anti-Nazi. That’s exactly why the Allies used Wagner, especially the _Ring_ cycle, in their propaganda broadcasts into Germany: that message about the futility and evil of seeking power that is the heart of the _Ring_. And they were able to use Wagner’s own granddaughter, Friedelind Wagner, to help explain it. (She fled Germany and made anti-Nazi broadcasts into Germany for the Allies, along with Thomas Mann and other cultural figures.)

If I think about Nazis in relation to _Götterdämmerung_, which is seldom because _Götterdämmerung_ is pretty vast in its range of meaning, it’s about the destruction of Nazism. Their destruction is the meaning the Nazis ultimately took from _Götterdämmerung_, and in that respect they were right.

Chars!

Laon

8

David All 05.06.05 at 10:38 pm

Okay Laon, if all this is true, how come Wagner is considered to have been Hitler’s favorite composer and why is Wagner’s musice banned in Israel?

(Confession: Have not actually a source for the Twain and Hitler quotes. Probably hear them from others and thought they were witty.

9

Laon 05.07.05 at 2:35 am

The information I gave is certainly true. Of course it’s not a complete picture. I didn’t mention, for example, that the Nazis played the _Rienzi_ overture at some early rallies, and the _die Meistersinger von Nürnberg_ overture when they were in Nurenberg. (Though it was the association between the opera and the town that did that: another piece was commissioned, but turned out not to be as good, musically, as the Wagner overture, so they used the Wagner. If the Nuremberg rallies had been held at Ipanema, say, then they’d have played a different piece of music.) But a complete picture would take a book: I was just throwing in some balance to the popular impression.

On Hitler’s late turning away from Wagner, see Frederik Spotts’ _Hitler and the Power of he Aesthetic_ book; if you read German, you can find confirmation in Goebbels’ _Diary_ for 1943.

On the reduction in performance numbers, you can find some information in Erik Levi’s _Music in the Third Reich_. I also drew on some German-language journal sources, which aren’t especially accessible.

On the dislike of _Parsifal_ by other Nazis, see both Goebbels’ _Diaries_ and Alfred Rosenberg’s _Myth of the Twentieth Century_. Rosenberg also condemns the _Ring_ cycle in that book, though mainly on aesthetic grounds. Spotts quotes Rosenberg describing the _Ring_ as “neither German nor heroic”.

In Rosenberg’s _Memoirs_, written before they hanged the bastard, he noted that if Hitler had actually taken the message of the _Ring_ cycle seriously, there would not have been a war or a Holocaust. (Rosenberg was a war criminal trying to save his neck, and in particular to blame others for the Holocaust and other crimes, so nothing he said in his _Memoirs_ should be taken too seriously. But both before the Nazi rise to power, and after their fall, Rosenberg’s writings indicate that he saw Wagner, especially the Wagner of the _Ring_ and _Parsifal_, as not on their side.)

There’s also some information on this in Frederik Spotts’ history of the Bayreuth Festival, which is a more accessible source.

The partial ban on the _Ring_ appears to have taken the form of a request that the cycle not be given as a whole. The problem seems to have been that, taken as a whole, it becomes quite obvious that the _Ring_ condemns the quest for power, and predicts that those who strive for power will destroy themselves. This was emphatically not the stuff to give the troops. However individual operas from the _Ring_ could be performed separately. There’s a reference to this in Dan Rather’s _The Dream of Self-Destruction_, which also mentions the _Pasifal_ ban. So does Spotts in his Bayreuth history.

Friedelind Wagner’s own book gives the story of her escape from Germany. There are various sources on the llied broadcasts into Germany, he said vaguely, meaning I don’t have them to hand. If you do doubt that, then I’ll track them down.

In answer to your questions:
(1) people think that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer because for most of Hitler’s life that was probably true.

The turn away from Wagner seems to be fairly late, from 1943. And of course sources on that, like the Goebbels Diaries, and interviews with Hitler staff and hangers-on came out later still, long after the image was fixed in the public mind. In any case, I’m only talking about the last couple of years of Hitler’s life.

Hitler also strongly admired Bruckner, and may have preferred him in some respects to Wagner. While preferring Wagner in other respects. But as Spotts observed, Hitler finally rejected Bruckner as well as Wagner: in the end there was only Lehar.

(2) The Wagner ban in Israel ban is discussed in a book by Na’ama Sheffi, called _The Ring of Myths: Israel, Wagner and the Nazis_. She pointed out that the origin of the ban was in some ways coincidental. Toscanini, who was a great Wagner conductor, was to conduct the Palestine Orchestra (principally staffed by East European Jews) in 1938. Between the program having been set, and the day of the concert, Kristalnacht happened. It was decided not to play any German music in the coming concert.

As it happened, the one German piece that had been scheduled was the _Meistersinger_ overture, so it was against Wagner in particular that the gesture was made. The orchestra played Wagner later, which is unsurprising since Wagner was Theodor Herzl’s favourite composer as well as Hitler’s, but this was on tour, not in Jerusalem. After the war, the precedent had been set.

Na’ama Sheffi suggests that the Wagner ban is a symbol in a cultural struggle between secular Israelis and those who are pushing for a more religious, a more nationalist, version of Israel. She argues that the issues are not about the actual historical person of Richard Wagner. But try her book for further information and argument on that.

There is no doubt that Wagner was a disgusting antisemite, by the way. I’m absolutely not suggesting otherwise. I’m only saying that he was not a proto-Nazi, and that the Nazi reception and perception of Wagner was rather more ambivalent and more complex than the popular image would allow.

And yeah, I’m working on a thesis on this, and … actually … this is displacement activity and I should get back to work.

Hang on: one other Wagner quote you might enjoy: here’s John Ruskin reviewing _Die Meistersinger_, in 1882.

“Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, … and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tongs and boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, so far as the sound went. I never was so relieved, so far as I can remember in my life, by the stopping of any sound – not excepting railway whistles – as I was by the cessation of the cobbler’s bellowing.”

Cheers!

Laon

10

Laon 05.07.05 at 2:43 am

By the way, the ENO production sounds bloody awful.

Laon

11

Patterico 05.08.05 at 7:01 pm

Fascinating stuff, Laon.

12

David All 05.09.05 at 5:25 pm

Laon, thank you for two wonderfully informative comments. I had thought Wagner to be a relatively simple case of a 19th Century romantic protonazi racist. Turns out to be quite a more complicated matter. Wagner certainly was a much more interesting, if still repuganent fellow, with all sorts of varying beliefs. A real witches cauldron that is impossible to sterotype. Will try and remember that lots of figures did not fit their sterotype. Laon, again thanks for the time you took to explain Wagner so as to dispell the myths and make him a real 3 dimension person with all sorts of conflicting and contrasting beliefs.
PS: Thanks for the Ruskin quote. He and Twain saw eye to eye concerning Wagner’s music!

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