Introduction to the Pure HumanIntroduction to the Pure Human
and Wagner Today
Only the purely human,
freed from every historical formalism,
could interest me.
(R. Wagner, A Communication to My Friends)
You have to have been interested in Wagner all your life before writing a book about him.1 Although there are 50,000 books about him and 4,600,000 internet sites that mention him in one way or another, the “case of Wagner” still exists, inconceivable as this may seem. There is a justified sense of awe in approaching the great problems involved but the search for the pure human has led many to take it upon themselves.
All Wagner’s art, from the juvenile works onwards, is directed towards his search for the essence of life, the substance of being and being ourselves, the basis of existing and becoming, an art that tends towards ontology.
In postmodernism, the time of the lightness of being, facts evaporate and feelings are inconsistent and
what is most needed now is a shift from the surface of the obvious to the foundation of each entity, to what is within the presumed truth of the contingent and the pragmatic. Wagner is the unequalled master in this.
There are works so important that music is never the same again, works that cannot be ignored in any visual angle, that affect historiography, musicology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics, philology, dramaturgy and every other cultural discipline but which involve, above all, life itself. All these noble sciences have analysed the case of Wagner. There are tens of thousands of books written by erudite scholars, academics and interpreters in every country, by critics and students of different humanities, in essays in which there is everything we will ever know about Wagner’s life and the people he knew, his ideas and writings, his way of composing and his operas. Shakespeare too has a limitless bibliography which, like Wagner’s, deals with his theatre from many points of view. The constant very high critical regard for Shakespeare, however, makes the innumerable number of works on him homogeneous, with the shared opinion of being in the presence of indisputable works of art. This is not so with Wagner. He is interpreted not only in a different way according to different points of view but also negatively, with hostility towards his ideas and opposition to his vision of “total theatre”.
In the huge bibliography of his works we find many repetitions and old approaches, but especially a substantial lack of perspective. The case of Wagner, however, is the problem of the relationship between Wagner and actuality.
Wagner knew very well that the writing must accord with its construction, its how, but also its what and its why (not in a literal way but in a real one). It must be a work that says that talking the talk is not admissible and that the work of art must be argued, a bridge for communication, communicating meaning entering into a community, the community of the listeners. This is different from expressing oneself which has an individual meaning.
Sound is perceived simultaneously as tone and language, the bearer of a vast, elemental semantic field, based on archetypes that refer to anthropology rather then musicology. Analytical methodology perforce tends to embrace the work and understand it in its humus and pathos as well as its technique and form. It is man with his primary needs who asks for this and no other composer has ever taken such a big step backwards.
It is no part of this essay to give an account of Wagner’s life. A lot of water has flowed under bridges since the Romantik believed in directly relating the work of composing with the work itself. What the English version focuses on in particular is some crisscrossing of thoughts and actions that shed light on his personality and his extraordinary work. The Italian version of the book, which is much longer, dwells on some salient points of his life and examines all his works and writings with a wealth of detail.
The first chapter analyses the context of the Romantic culture in which the young Wagner grew up, his first instrumental compositions and his experiences in the theatre, up to the years in Paris which were fundamental in his musical development. This is a dense, fascinating, cultural web. Rienzi, Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are studied in the second chapter which concludes with a reflection on the part he played in the revolutionary risings in Dresden in 1849 (Wagner was always a musician engagé). His arrival in Switzerland, the drafts of his plays, the famous writings (Art of the Future, Judaism in Music, Opera and Drama, A Communication to my Friends), the Wesendonck-Lieder, the Albumblatt, his relationships with Liszt and Ludwig II, The Brown Book, My Life, Cosima’s Diary and the “divine scores” of Tristan and Die Meistersinger are analysed in the third chapter, taking account of new considerations. Finally, the last chapter deals with the thought and symbolism in Der Ring des Nibelungen, the new theatre in Bayreuth, his explosive meeting with Nietzsche, his writings on regeneration, nationalism and anti-Semitism, and Parsifal. In all, the story of an extraordinary man and his music, as fascinating as it is problematical. Special emphasis is given to Wagner’s relationship with Italy both in his difficult relationships with opera and the places where he went, Venice in particular – his relationship with Italy but also Italy’s with him.
1 The writer began studying Wagner during his university years and his first degree thesis was on his writings, then little known in Italy. He later presented his second degree thesis in musicology (both degrees from Bologna University) about the relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche. From these two theses came the book Wagner oggi, published by Zanibon di Padova in 1981 with a second edition in the following year and a preface by Luigi Rognoni.