Friday, 9 March 2007

Why should the devil have all the best tunes?

It's strange how things have a habit of coming together.

This evening on BBC4 there was a fascinating film primarily about the relationship of Winifred Wagner, Richard Wagner's English-born daughter-in-law, and Adolf Hitler.

In my youth I was an ardent Wagnerian worshipping at the Bayreuth shrine for two consecutive summers. I think I managed five complete Ring cycles, two Meistersingers and one each of the five other major works in just two years! And on top of that I even took part in the first modern performance of the then unrecorded early opera, Die Feen. Of course, as one does, I grew out of this excess (along with smoking) and thereafter for many years encountered 'the master's' music only intermittently. Recently however I've started to come round to it again and a few weeks ago was absolutely transfixed by a televised performance of Die Walkure - forgive the missing umlaut, I haven't learned how to do that yet. Of course, the issue of Wagner's German nationalism leavened with an unhealthy dollop of antisemitism is never far from the surface and the relationship between the composer and the subsequent Nazi ideology was clearly at the core of tonight's programme. Two things were striking. First, there was Winifred Wagner's unwillingness ever to say a bad word about Hitler. She clearly loved him and remained faithful to that love until she died as recently as 1980. She was critical of some of the things he did but remained loyal to the man she knew. And second, there is the eternal question of how such undoubtedly great and often beautiful music can coexist with such evil.

This latter point was positively hammered home by a (BBC) Radio 3 programme a little later in the evening during which large chunks of Monteverdi's last opera L'incoronazione di Poppea were played. In the last scene Nero and Poppea, two irredeemably corrupt and utterly rotten specimens of humanity, are united and sing what surely remains some of the most serene and spine tinglingly lovely music ever penned. If you, dear reader, don't know Poppea, do yourself a favour and, having found a copy, play the last 10 minutes. Whatever possessed the composer to confront us like this? But art - the world even -would be immeasurably the poorer if he hadn't.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Smith said...

Thanks for reminding me. Haven't heard Poppaea in years. I'll have to correct that.