Last week, I focused on Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt, who were three of the giants of the Romantic Era, but I left one out. I did hint at an important connection, though, and that comes via Franz Liszt’s second daughter, and only child to survive past her 20s: Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt.
Of course, history knows her better as Cosima Wagner, which was her married name. She started an affair with the composer Richard Wagner in 1863, when she was 26, and married him seven years later, when she was 33 and he was 57.
They were married for thirteen years, until his death in 1883, but she continued to direct the Bayreuth Festival for another twenty years. In fact, she lived long enough to see Hitler come to power, surviving until the age of 92. She died in 1930.
And how did she feel about Hitler coming to power? Well, this is one of those little dark corners of music history, but Wagner and his wife were famously anti-Semitic.
One anecdote that my music history teacher taught us was that whenever Wagner had to conduct the music of Felix Mendelssohn, who was Jewish, he would make a big point of only handling the conductor’s score while wearing gloves, which he would toss aside when he was done.
Yeah, that much of an anti-Semite. And yet, he did have an impact on music, although for kind of assholey reasons. He didn’t want to create any opera stars, so contrary to existing style, he didn’t write them soaring arias or pretty duets.
Instead, he elevated the concept of the leitmotif, which is a short theme associated with a character or mood. This concept is extremely common in movie soundtracks to this day. Think of the Star Wars movies, which have short themes associated with the heroes and villains. It’s the same with other major franchises in particular, like the MCU or Harry Potter.
John Williams is a huge proponent of the leitmotif concept.
Beyond this, Wagner was a huge champion of what he called Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” That is, his operas wouldn’t just be about the music. Rather, they were about the sum total of everything — the stagecraft, the music, the singing, the acting, and the special effects.
He definitely felt that the music should take a back seat to the drama and the story, and he certainly shot for this goal in his most well-known work, the epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, that last word being plural, by the way.)
Based on ancient Norse and Germanic texts, it chronicles the saga of the Teutonic gods from their rise to their downfall. The piece consists of four separate, full-length operas, culminating in Götterdämmerung, or Twilight of the Gods.
And it’s this last bit of the opera that has lent a very famous expression to the language. One of the main characters of the cycle is Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie cast as a soprano, and generally played by a plus-sized woman.
We first meet her in opera number two, Die Walkure, as she rides around on flying horses with her sisters (and yes, they flew them on that stage), and sings the number made most famous by the film Apocalypse Now! as Robert Duvall is enjoying the smell of Napalm® in the morning.
She makes her exit in the aforementioned Götterdämmerung, but her final scene takes twenty minutes and sets the rest of the actions of the piece in motion. And although the phrase wasn’t coined until maybe the 1970s, but its exact origin is murky, this is the reason that we still may say, “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”
Another twist Wagner added to music was his use of chromaticism, which facilitated rapid tonal shifts in the keys of his music.
Very short version of what that means: I’ve written before about how musical scales are based on a progression of seven notes (which lead back to an eighth, which is just the first note an octave higher.)
But there are twelve notes, or tones, overall. It’s just that any particular diatonic scale will not use five of them. Again, think back to that keyboard layout of white keys interrupted by repeating, alternating groups of two and three black keys.
The key of C Major has no sharps or flats, so those black keys are not naturally a part of it. It’s the same thing for every key, just not as obviously marked.
In chromaticism, composers will use any of the twelve tones in any of the keys for all kinds of effects. Although not unheard of in previous eras of music, Wagner heightened it, and his work is often considered the birth of the Modern Era in music.
And yet, there’s always that dark cloud that will hang over his work. It’s not for no reason that the Nazis embraced his compositions and philosophies when they came along, and while his music is technically not banned in Israel, it isn’t acceptable to play it, and the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation had to apologize for playing the final act of Götterdämmerung on-air, even though it was from a performance at the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, who is Jewish.
The most blatant example of his anti-Semitism has to be his essay Das Judenthum in der Musik, first published under a pseudonym in 1850. While the title is translated in English as “Judaism in Music,” that really doesn’t do justice to the vitriol in the original, which at the time would have been more along the lines of “Jewry” or “Jewdom” or “Jewishness.”
Judaism is a respectful term for the religion and its followers. The other three, not so much. They all carry negative connotations. It’s the difference between saying of someone, “He’s Jewish” and “He’s a Jew.” The former is acceptable, the latter, really not, unless it’s one Jewish person talking about another.
Of course, we also run into that tricky bit: At this time, in European culture, it was totally okay to be anti-Semitic. The Jewish people were these weird folk who had been run out of Eastern Europe in the pogroms.
They were not Christian, they had their own strange practices that outsiders were not privy to, and what was with the clothes and hats and beards and all that, anyway? It was a classic example of white Europeans of privilege refusing to even try to learn about or understand people who were different than them.
Hey — that’s still going on with white people in America today!
What it all leads to is a culture of blaming one particular group for the problems of the whole. The targets may vary over time and place, but there’s a common term for it: Scapegoating. And, ironically, this concept comes right out of Judaism itself.
The real reason for this misplaced blame, of course, is to avoid responsibility on two fronts. First, people don’t want to take responsibility if, for example, they can’t find a high-paying job because they don’t have the skills for it, or if they get fired from the job they do have.
That’s not their problem. No it was because the (fill in scapegoat du jour) are taking all our jerbs, man!
And it’s definitely not because of the ridiculous income inequality in America (or the Europe of Wagner’s time) when a lot of people lose their jobs because one billionaire buys a company for another and decides that he’ll make an extra half a million this year if he lays off 10,000 people, and doubles the workload of 5,000 more without raising their salaries.
That’s because they’ve managed to propagandize enough of their workers to not see who the real villains in the piece are.
That was an interesting road to wander down, but it just shows you how divisive and toxic Wagner’s views were, because just reading about them gave me the visceral need to pushback.
Fortunately, I’ve never been a really big fan of his music because it can be so jarringly unmelodic, and I’m not an opera fan, either. But I do have to admit, dammit, that he was the primary gatekeeper for the next phase change in musical eras — just as Beethoven brought in the Romantics, Wagner brought in the Moderns.
But I think I might still have a few more bits to say about the Romantic Era — with much fewer Nazis, but a lot more Russians.
Image: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons