Art, anti-Semitism and The Times

If Classical and Romantic music revolves around the tonic-dominant polarity, one gets the distinct impression that whoever writes on such subjects in The Times favours the gin-dominant polarity instead.

In general, the effrontery of our journalists in passing bold judgment on subjects with which they’re barely familiar is most refreshing. But whenever they display this tendency to enlarge on topics dear to one’s heart, alarm bells begin to chime loudly and discordantly.

The other day, a wisely anonymous pundit delivered himself on the subject of Wagner (Art and Anti-Semitism) and, this being the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, we must brace ourselves for a veritable outpouring of similarly inane gibberish.

In particular, linking Wagner’s music with the article’s eponymous vice has a lot of mileage in it, and you can bet that every inch will be travelled back and forth. This, according to our anonym, ‘should not be shirked’ because it ‘exemplifies an uncomfortable truth. One of the supreme achievements of Western civilisation, ranking with Shakespeare and Michelangelo, was the work of an appalling man.’

The underlying assumption is that other supreme achievements of our civilisation have been the work of wing-flapping angels, which would be proved false by even a cursory examination of Western cultural history. We don’t know much about Shakespeare, but neither Michelangelo nor say Tolstoy, arguably the best novelist ever, was an exemplar of probity and moral goodness. As to Caravaggio, the pictorial answer to Wagner, he was simply a murderer.

That Wagner wasn’t a nice chappy is beyond doubt. However, ranking him with either Shakespeare or Michelangelo is a gross overstatement. It’s Wagner we’re talking about, not Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Though no doubt a great musician, he didn’t sit in the first row of Western composers, and probably not even in the second.

As proof of his genius, the anonym states that Wagner ‘advanced the expressive power of music by developing, deliberately and triumphantly, a chromatic technique with scant precedence… thereby expressing intense emotion.’

This accolade displays a deficit of both education and taste. Wagner didn’t invent chromaticism ‘with scant precedence’. It’s Bach’s exploration of well-tempered tuning resulting in such sublime works as his Well-Tempered Clavier and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue that could perhaps be credited with this innovation.

After Bach, chromaticism became an essential part of the musical language, as any listener of Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor or Chopin’s last Mazurka will testify. Moreover, this Mazurka also contains a reasonable approximation of the Tristan chord, widely and too generously credited with redefining tonality.

That Wagner was a musical innovator is beyond doubt, but it’s sheer ignorance to suggest that his radicalism was best revealed in chromaticism or in expanding the limits of tonality, pursuits he doubtless advanced but far from ‘with scant precedent’. To be technical about it, his most innovative contribution to music perhaps lay in the suspension of tonic resolution until the absolute limit – all of Tristan is one continuous search for the tonic. In other areas, including the ‘expanded tonality’ of the Tristan chord, he borrowed liberally not only from Chopin but also from Liszt.

If the technical aspect of the article shows up the author’s ignorance, the comment about Wagner’s supposedly unprecedented ability to ‘express intense emotion’ reveals his lack of taste. I’d suggest that our anonym listen, off the top, to the final chorus or the duet of mezzo and violin from St Matthew’s Passion, or to the slow movement of Mozart’s K488. At a pinch I could, without straining myself, mention a couple of hundred other works, whose expressive power Wagner couldn’t approximate even remotely.

What Wagner added to the emotional palette of Western music wasn’t expressiveness but naked sensuality often bordering on downright vulgarity. He didn’t invent emotional expression; he just lowered it. In that Wagner jumped backwards to Germany’s pagan, sylvan past, leapfrogging the intervening centuries of Christendom. It wasn’t angels but hobgoblins that Wagner saw in his mind’s eye.

That’s why it’s wrong, when talking about Wagner’s disgusting philosophy, to say, as the anonym does, that ‘Wagner’s genius does not soften this characteristic but is independent of it.’ No artist is independent of his innermost convictions – he just expresses them in a different, indirect way.

Both Wagner’s philosophy and his music have the same provenance in Germany’s pre-Christian past, which the anonym acknowledges without even realising he’s refuting himself. ‘The racism Wagner espoused… runs through his operas.’ I’m confused: is Wagner’s music independent of his philosophy or is it not? It can’t be both, you know.

Having said all that, it’s sheer parochialism and philistinism to ban performances of Wagner. That is what Israel did until Daniel Barenboim rode in on his white horse called Self-Promotion. Banning art produced by men whose views we find abhorrent, be it anti-Semitism, liberalism or even paganism, is both wrong and fraught with danger.

Practically every Russian writer worth his salt, most emphatically including Dostoyevsky, was an anti-Semite. So were Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh and quite possibly Shakespeare. Céline wasn’t just a garden-variety anti-Semite but an out-and-out Nazi. Gabriel García Márquez was a communist. So was Picasso. Getting back to music, neither Chopin nor Brahms nor Rachmaninov nor Prokofiev nor especially Medtner had much time for Jews. Are we going to ban all their works? Before long we’d run out of good things to hear, see or read.

Artists should be judged for their art, full stop. Even though the art is never independent of the artist’s personality and philosophy, failings of the latter shouldn’t be held against the former.

By all means, let’s play Wagner’s music for those who have the enviable capacity for listening to it without dozing off. But do spare us inane commentary – of the kind The Times seems to wish to monopolise these days.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.