Graham Bradshaw writes about the interpretation of Wagner

  • The Bayreuth Ring
    BBC2, October 1982
  • Parsifal directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
    Edinburgh Film Festival, September 1982
  • Parsifal by Lucy Beckett
    Cambridge, 163 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 521 22825 5
  • Wagner and Literature by Raymond Furness
    Manchester, 159 pp, £14.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 7190 0844 1
  • Wagner to ‘The Waste Land’: A Study of the Relationship of Wagner to English Literature by Stoddart Martin
    Macmillan, 277 pp, £20.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 333 28998 6
  • Wagner and Aeschylus: ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Oresteia’ by Michael Ewans
    Faber, 271 pp, £12.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 571 11808 9

On balance, we should be grateful to the BBC for finding room on its snooker station, over ten successive Sundays, for what the editor of Opera described as France’s long-delayed revenge for the Franco-Prussian War. The Boulez-Chéreau Ring has also been described, more preposterously, as ‘the Ring of the century’ – an accolade which plainly belongs to the 1951 Wieland Wagner production which inaugurated the ‘New Bayreuth’. Musically, the Boulez Ring cannot compare with Furtwängler’s La Scala performance or Knappertsbusch’s 1957 cycle, both available on record. Moreover, if the New Bayreuth approach to Wagner no longer seems new or radical enough, and if overtly socio-political interpretations have now displaced Wieland’s revolutionary emphasis on ‘psychodrama’, then the Ring productions of Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz might be thought more substantially challenging than Chéreau’s.

The contrasts between Chéreau’s Ring and Syberberg’s new film, and between Syberberg’s view of Parsifal and Lucy Beckett’s, are most illuminating. Beckett’s detailed, searching and provocative study can stand by Deryck Cooke’s magisterial I saw the world end (1979) and the long essay by Michael Tanner in the Faber Wagner Companion (1979). The other three recent books are built on shakier foundations. Ewans, the author of a fine study of Janáček’s operas, here traces the allegedly strong Aeschylean influence on Wagner, while Furness and Martin discuss Wagner’s influence on others: but all three are too little concerned with the peculiar nature and conditions of Wagner’s own musical-dramatic achievement.

Why do so many musical terms, like ‘composed’, ‘resolve’ or ‘tonic’, also have a psychological reference? The Greeks took very seriously music’s power to heal and assuage, just as Wagner insisted that the greatest absolute music could ‘heal’ and ‘cleanse’. In Parsifal, ‘Nur eine Waffe’ brings an unmistakable and profound sense of release – but from what, into what? Musicians don’t so much answer that question as reformulate it, forbiddingly, by speaking of a progress from harmonic and chromatic instability to sustained diatonicism. Wagner assumed that the pre-conceptual, musical-psychological experience would be clarified and intensified by his libretto’s conceptual references: but, as Syberberg reminds us, these also introduce a further cluster of moral, aesthetic and interpretative problems.

Parsifal’s sexual-pathological element, which so impressed and disturbed Thomas Mann (an authority on such matters), is one of the Parsifal problems; the issue of whether or not the work is ‘Christian’ is another. Nietzsche isolated these two problems together with a third, which is more peculiarly German: like Hanslick, Nietzsche detected and detested a conjoining of ‘religious’ and ‘nationalist-patriotic’ feeling, which he saw as a reactionary act of treason – a denial of the Goethean spirit in 19th-century Germany. And Nietzsche’s privately confessed, contradictory admiration for the music pointed towards a fourth problem which pressed hard on some Wagnerians: if Parsifal is indeed Wagner’s supreme musical achievement, how could this be dissociated from an allegedly suspect drama? The Bayreuth stagings were characterised by an unctuous religiosity, when Cosima and then Winifred Wagner ruled; Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner rebelled against this by insisting that Parsifal is a psychodrama, and no modern producer can avoid feeling the tug of these opposed traditions. Cosima’s anti-semitism and Winifred’s Nazi sympathies threw up another problem, of the kind which fascinated Ruskin in different contexts: Parsifal meant a great deal, not only to men of real integrity like Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler, but also to Clemens Krauss and Karajan, who saw no reason to dally over joining the Nazi Party. If we find it disturbing that Krauss and Karajan conducted very fine Parsifals, are we subscribing to the gross fallacy Cosima supported from the other side, through her belief that a Jewish conductor (Hermann Levi) could not penetrate the sacred mystery? On the other hand, if we aren’t disturbed, what becomes of Wagner’s idealistic belief that a ‘true’ response to great music conditions man’s moral being?

These problems aren’t equally important, of course. But few would claim to be able to watch Parsifal without finding their mind ranging over some of these problems. And I take it that here I am merely reformulating one of the premises that determined Syberberg’s procedure. Using clever front projection techniques, he provides a rapid background commentary on the main dramatic action: this is sometimes contrived and disruptive, but more frequently suggests the reflexes and ricochets of a mind that is actively engaging with Parsifal. Discarded alternatives are seen, in rapid flashes of irony. There are several glimpses of Paul von Joukowsky’s 1882 design for the Grail Temple; and although Syberberg’s Gurnemanz is evidently in his thirties, Kundry is at one point seen contemplating a sacra-like bundle of old puppets – one of them very like Emil Scaria’s original Gurnemanz. We are repeatedly reminded of Wagner himself at moments when there is some point in remembering that Parsifal is an intensely personal creative myth: a dusky starlit night, glimpsed in the journey to the Temple where ‘time becomes space,’ proves to be a huge blow-up of Wagner’s quilted satin jacket; rocks in the Temple grounds are a huge model of Wagner’s death-mask. There are pointed, unnerving double-takes: in Act Three, as the Knights who will menace Amfortas enter the Temple we see a swastika – but at once the camera pans back to show hundreds of different flags, many of them decomposing.

What is the cup that bleeds, and, as Wagner wrote, ‘blends heavenly unction with eternal ban’? A hauntingly beautiful cover illustration for The Wise Wound, the study of menstruation by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove (translated into German in 1980), shows the Grail chalice within a womb. In Syberberg’s film Amfortas’s wound is both internal and external, as in dream-logic: his tunic is bloodied at groin-level, but the wound is also carried about on a purple velvet cushion, a disembodied slit from which blood wells as Amfortas cries in anguish. But there is no need to insist on Emma Jung’s thesis that the Grail myth is associated with menstrual taboos and mysteries. The point that matters for Parsifal is that its first two acts show a terrible, denaturing rift in man’s relations to nature, sexuality and the feminine – such as also occurs in the prologue to the Ring. As Wotan is ‘Licht-Alberich’, Titurel is a Licht-Klingsor: as Wolfgang Wagner observed in a 1976 essay, Titurel’s ugly asceticism and hatred of the feminine offers no ‘Good’ to set against Klingsor’s ‘Evil’. It is another extreme psychic perversion, which Parsifal himself will decisively repudiate by bringing a woman – that woman! – into the Temple. Being whole – and here Syberberg’s understanding of Parsifal’s ‘Sei heil’ is very close to Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner’s – involves closing the rift. In Jungian terms: achieving psychic integration by admitting the ‘other’.

Far from being a potty joke (who is Parsifal, what is she?), Parsifal’s ‘change of sex’ in Syberberg’s film is precisely charted in psychological terms, which he offers as an alternative to ‘Christian’ interpretations. The young Parsifal is brought to understand that guilt is a condition of existence: after killing the swan in an excess of naturally unreflective, predatorially self-assertive energy (Wahn, in Wagner’s Schopenhauerean sense), Parsifal’s moral growth begins (like Brünnhilde’s) in compassionate identification. In Syberberg’s Act Two, when Parsifal kisses Kundry and identifies with Amfortas’s suffering, the Parsifal-anima emerges, to supplant the shattered boy: a gravely troubled, beautiful girl in armour (again like Brünnhilde) takes his place. This psychic rift and Kundry’s curse (a prophetic Freudian insight into the revenges of repressed nature) perpetuate the disorder, within Parsifal, and the displaced, wounded male self does not return until ‘Nur eine Waffe’ in Act Three. Then the animus emerges behind the anima, the two sing together as if in a duet, and when the wound of Amfortas is healed psychic integration is possible. The film ends with an extraordinary sequence: following the call for the Grail to be revealed, the rocks – that is, Wagner’s death mask – split open. Within the skull the two Parsifals contemplate each other face to face, and at last embrace: a complex, beautiful reminder that the envisaged psychic integration depends upon the dead artist’s imaginative achievement in evolving a highly personal myth. The camera moves backwards, emerges through the eye-socket of another skull, that of a dead Knight, and then comes to rest on another haunting, charged image: a rapt Kundry is posed over a glass dome, within which the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is under construction – and there Parsifal will be ‘interpreted’. Kundry closes her eyes, lowers her head, and the film is over.

I have not seen a single favourable review of Syberberg’s film, whereas Lucy Beckett’s finely argued Christian account of Parsifal was universally well received. Yet the psychological interpretation can be defended for those very reasons that make the ‘Christian’ account unconvincing. Wagner was an alarmingly intuitive, as well as highly conscious, artist. Despite its long period of creative gestation, Parsifal assembled itself in sudden intuitive leaps – especially where Kundry was concerned. In 1858, and again in his 1880 essay ‘Religion and Art’, Wagner insisted in unequivocal terms that the Grail legends existed independently of Christianity, while observing that Christians ‘soon framed the legends of its miraculous power their own way, and brought it into rapport with the Christian mythos’. And the composition of Parsifal showed a curious dual development: the motifs of spear and chalice became more explicitly Christian, yet also more entangled with the fabulous symbolic apparatus which is centred on Kundry and dominates Act Two.

A Christian account like Beckett’s consequently faces many difficulties. She has too little to say about Kundry. Wagner’s (and Nietzsche’s) idea that Mitleid, or compassionate empathy, was the real essence of Christianity is hard to defend: it has a place in Christian ethics but is not central to Christian theology, and obviously owes much to Schopenhauer and Buddhist teaching – just as the stress on the sanctity of all forms of life is Brahminic rather than Christian. Beckett is embarrassed by the cruelty of the Grail knights but sees this as an odd, unaccountable lapse: she might better have asked what Titurel and Klingsor have in common with Tertullian and Origen – namely, the neurotic-making hostility to Nature, sexuality, and the feminine in Nature. Beckett is generally ill at ease with something Syberberg firmly confronts: Parsifal’s oppressive eroticism, its exploration of crippling psychic deformations and spiritual perversion. The Wagner who admired Feuerbach and dismissed the author of the Medieval Parzifal as a ‘superficial penetrator’ explored myth – including what he detachedly calls the ‘Christian mythos’ – as complex data or raw material for an intuitive process of psychic probing. When Syberberg observed in an interview that Christianity is but one of many elements in Parsifal he was echoing Wagner himself.

As soon as we disregard the automatic, unreflective protests of outraged conservatism, the fundamental difference between Syberberg’s and Patrice Chéreau’s interpretative departures from ‘tradition’ becomes clearer. Wagner’s meanings dilate in the Syberberg film, and are forcibly contracted in the Chéreau Ring. Surprisingly perhaps, in view of his earlier films, Syberberg sees Parsifal very much as Wieland Wagner did – as psychodrama – and, as I’ve already tried to suggest, this means that the various connections between the Ring and Parsifal are present as possibilities. But no stretch, or rather contraction, of the interpretative imagination will yield a primarily political Parsifal: Chéreau’s particular way of trying to render the Ring coherent removes the conditions of any further coherence and continuity within the Wagnerian oeuvre. It is likely that this damaging entailment of his concern with ‘relevance’ and ‘immediacy’ not only didn’t trouble Chéreau, but never occurred to him: he cheerily confessed both his impatience with ‘myth’ and his previous unfamiliarity with Wagnerian drama, and indeed in 1976, when his ‘centenary Ring’ was first staged, his previous operatic experience was restricted to productions of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers and of Tales of Hoffmann.

Chéreau’s approach to the Ring showed the French predilection for, and dependence on, systematic ideologies. The preferred method of interpretation is to place an ideological grid over any work of art, and then report on whatever still shows through it. Different grids – Roman Catholic, Marxist or structuralist – will serve, and sometimes replace each other in sequence when a void would be intellectually and emotionally unendurable. Though thickly reticulated and inflexible, Chéreau’s preferred grid is lightweight and portable – basically an updated Shavian socialism which, like its Fabian predecessor, is well suited to much of Das Rheingold but becomes ever less adequate as the tetralogy unfolds. Ironically, the result was a simplistic reinstatement of the sociopolitical allegorising in Wagner’s initial conception of his work, two decades before its completion. The letters Wagner wrote to his fellow revolutionist August Röckel both expound, and begin to recognise the inadequacies of, the socio-political interpretation. Characteristically, Wagner explained his difficulties to Röckel by insisting that creative intuition runs far ahead of conceptual understanding. Such a view corresponds with Boris Pasternak’s conception of ‘safe conduct’; it also commends itself to that Anglo-Saxon tradition of psychological empiricism which the French, not always without justice, so distrust.

Chéreau did indeed bring out the seaminess of Das Rheingold, the social and political contemporaneity – for Wagner’s age, and ours – of its portrayal of loveless power; and there was much else to admire. There were some wonderfully detailed, subtle performances, notably those of Hanna Schwarz (Fricka) and Heinz Zednik (Loge). Here, and throughout the cycle, the lighting was superb. Brian Large’s direction of the filming was sensitive, and provided a salutary contrast with the horrors of BBC Television’s Kata Kabanova. But although Wagner’s exploration of the corrupting, dehumanising effects of power naturally includes an indictment of industrial capitalism, it also looks beyond that – not backwards to Bakunin, but forwards to Freud. The daughters of the Rhine are no more maidenly than Nature itself, or their girlblossom counterparts in Parsifal: but they are not French whores either, nor did Chéreau ever explain why whores were guarding gold in a hydroelectric dam. An all-too-human god who is becoming as corrupt as a ruthless capitalist baron is not the same as a grittily ignoble mining magnate who unaccountably carries a runed spear: in adjusting to the effect of the one or the other we adjust in opposite directions. Mann’s ironic parody of Wotan and his brood in his 1906 story The Blood of the Walsungs depends on there being something more noble, however compromised, to measure the Aarenhold family against. Chéreau gave us Aarenholds.

Die Walküre brings an uplifting descent – to a human world in which higher human potentialities are at last explored. But here, too, Chéreau preferred Gallic notions of good theatre to the illuminations of great drama. The lovers’ prolonged first ‘glance’, or Augenblick, is crucial, as Wagner’s detailed stage directions should make plain even to a modern producer: but Chéreau does not allow his visually and vocally splendid pair to look at each other. From this (mutilated) moment, to the copulative frenzy of the closing bars, the music of Act One traces an astonishingly prolonged dramatic arc, marking the successive stages of the lovers’ understanding not only of each other but of themselves – until the final self-committing, self-defining defiance of all constraints. But Chéreau’s randy pair know who they are and what they want with wholly un Wagnerian rapidity: Sieglinde is pawing Siegmund even before her husband’s return. Moreover, Chéreau provided Hunding not only with a palatial residence (with an ash-tree in the drawing-room) but with an on-stage retinue of henchmen with batons – where the intensity of Wagner’s drama here depends on a claustrophobic intimacy much nearer to Strindbergian chamber drama than to Grand Opera. ‘There are only three characters in the first act of The Valkyrie.’ poor Humphrey Burton reminded us the following week: there are, but what had he been watching?

The ruinous cost of this vandalism was inevitably reckoned in the Act Two Todesverkündigung scene, in which, some ten years before Ivan Karamazov, Siegmund gives God back his ticket and firmly rejects a divine order which does not admit human love and compassion. Siegmund’s existential rejection, and choice of death and oblivion, is counter-pointed by the awakening of Brünnhilde’s compassion, and her imaginative realisation of the holiness of a hopeless human love. This is the pivotal scene of the Ring: everything builds towards, or develops from, the contrast between human love and loveless ‘divine’ power. Chéreau’s production had not even suggested why his Sieglinde – a lovely girl with healthy, unembarrassed appetites – should have been overcome by guilty terror, and fled the family palace, instead of coolly encouraging Siegmund to butcher Hunding with an invincible sword. By this time things were irretrievable. What followed included a caged wood-bird, a toy dragon, and a visually spectacular but dramatically absurd crowded stage at the end of Götterdämmerung: but Wagner had gone over the green hill and far away.

Raymond Furness’s book consists of four essays discussing Wagner, symbolism and modernism; Wagner and decadence; Wagner and myth; parody and persiflage. Some of his material is unfamiliar and entertaining – for example, the discussions of Wagner and Nestroy, or of a horror-comic Wagnerian transvestite vampire called Dragula. But as soon as we try to settle on any particular issue the discussion is superficial. Gerald, in Women in Love, is ‘an Alberich figure’ whose beauty ‘makes him into a Siegfried’, while Axel Heyst in Victory ‘moves Tristan-like to his own destruction’. We are warned, in a hazily vacuous fashion, that the music of ‘the German magus’ can ‘lead to obfuscation and brutality’. Although the Wagnerian orchestra is choric, participating in and commenting on the drama, Furness trundles out the misleading and loose notion that it prefigures ‘stream-of-consciousness’ techniques.

Martin’s book is peppered with factual errors, is hopelessly uncritical, and largely derives from the work of writers like William Blisset and Herbert Knust. I would have added John DiGaetani’s Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel, which was published four years earlier, but Martin claims that a book of that title ‘by Bernard di Gaetani’ was ‘under preparation at the time of writing’. The chapter on Yeats is a tissue of fancies (Lady Gregory ‘suggests something of Cosima’); that on Joyce is unintentionally funny (‘Like Mime, the Jesuits have been surrogate parents’), and culminates in the shattering observation that the Wagnerian influence on Joyce is ‘not a question of specific allusion’ but of an ‘aspiration shared’ – ‘to create art of the maximum intensity’. We learn too that ‘ineffable divine “guesswork” ’ was ‘the ruling principle’ of events ‘for Joyce, as for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’ – but Martin may be referring to Gus Nietzsche, since Schopie Boy turns out to be called Arnold. Where there is a critical problem – like Lawrence’s confused use of Wagner in Women in Love – Martin remembers other appointments. But then anybody who can say that Wagner ‘sought in Klingsor’ an ‘unsympathetic characterisation of the Jew’, and that Klingsor is last seen ‘slinking down from the ruins of his enchanted castle’, has indeed – in a sense very different from that intended – ‘assumed’ a ‘broad general knowledge’ of Wagner’s works.

Ewans’s book attempts a sadly misconceived and portentous expansion of the sensible paragraphs on Wagner and Aeschylus in Cooke’s I saw the world end and in the two biographies of Wagner by Curt von Westernhagen. Given his willingness to countenance far more tenuous parallels, it is surprising that he deliberately denies the influence of Prometheus Bound (as expounded by Wolfgang Schadewaldt and Hugh Lloyd-Jones): the Oresteia is the key to the Ring. Götterdämmerung finishes with ‘a promise of hope and fruitful increase which is comparable with that which Aeschylus perceives as springing from the closing concord between the Athenians and the Eumenides’. But the Aeschylean ‘concord’ celebrates the stability – and divinely sanctioned stability – of the Athenian political and social world: whatever Wagner’s ‘promise’ may be, it doesn’t do that. To claim that ‘harmony with nature’ matters to both Aeschylus and Wagner is vapid; it matters equally, and equally differently, in Shakespeare and Molière.

As Wagner himself argued in Opera and Drama, Greek tragedy could unite cult and drama because Greek myth was a communal creation. Wagner’s own creative mythologising was intensely personal. Ewans makes this point while missing it, when he remarks on the ‘total divergence between the values of Wagner’s sources and those which he sought to impose on them’. We are told that ‘the Aeschylean ideal of an action shaped so as to culminate in the illumination of one central event’ is ‘rephrased’ in the Ring. But this is as true of Tristan, not because that work is Aeschylean but because it also displays what Thomas Mann described as Wagner’s characteristic mixture of ‘mythical primitiveness and psychological, yes, psychoanalytical modernity’. To maintain that, ‘like the classical tragedians’, Wagner ‘sought to use the ancient myths of his own culture to dramatise contemporary problems’ is to equivocate with the words ‘like’ and ‘ancient’: the respective myths weren’t ancient in the same way, and weren’t apprehended in the same way. That point seems obvious, but apparently isn’t. One very relevant way of elaborating it would be to consider how Wagner establishes his profoundly significant parallels between Alberich and Wotan as ‘Licht-Alberich’. The ‘mythic’ first scene of Das Rheingold is Wagner’s invention, while Cooke traces very brilliantly the ways in which Alberich draws on, and synthesises, saga fragments involving Andvari, Elberich and Aldrian. And the central conflict between love and power which Wotan focuses is nowhere prefigured in the sagas. This creative mythologising does indeed look forward to crucial developments in our own century – not only to artists like Mann, Eliot or Ted Hughes, but to psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology. This hardly looks like evidence for Lucy Beckett’s claim that Wagner is a ‘naive artist’ who ‘gives us myth straight’: on the contrary, it provides further support for Syberberg’s assumption that recovering Wagner’s meanings involves sifting the internal and also the contingent obstacles – even as Wagner sifted the ‘trappings’ and ‘accretions’ in his own sources. 1983 is the centenary of Wagner’s death. We ought to be addressing the questions which matter, although the present books make me fearful of what a centennial spate may bring.