ORPHEUS is said to have calmed wild animals with his voice.
Wagner, by contrast, makes wild animals of the most serene people.
Once you have entered the world of Tristan und Isolde, the
soprano Susan Bullock says, there is no going back. The door to a
world of sexual feelings is opened, and you will never be the same
again. Either that, or it is one long snooze.
One thing that Paul Mason's excellent documentary Richard
Wagner - Power, Sex and Revolution (Radio 4, Tuesday of last
week) did not manage to address is why five-hour dramas of
unremitting romanticism might not be everybody's cup of tea. I know
musicians who would rather endure Howard Goodall's
Story of Music than sit through a Wagner opera.
The other reason given for disliking Wagner is, of course, the
politics. As one witness on the programme declared: "You are
deluded if you ignore the racism" in Wagner. Mason's way round this
problem is to admire Wagner's art for rising above the composer's
disagreeable philosophies and prejudices.
It is an interesting argument, likening Wagner to a disabled
athlete who is able to succeed despite physical difficulties. But
you can see his point, and the plethora of Wagner festivals bear
witness to it: that the music is what we are beguiled by. We can
put up with large ladies in horned helmets, if they are accompanied
by the most magnificent music ever written for the stage. In short,
we are suckers for a good tune.
One of the dozens of readings that Wagner's Ring has
undergone in the past century has taken the cycle to be a Gnostic
manifesto, inspired by Schopenhauer. This interpretation suggests
that the world of the Ring is the loveless creation of
Wotan, whose power can be overcome only through the renunciation of
the physical, and the liberation of the spirit. As it happens,
In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) provided a
foundation course in Gnosticism.
Gnostics have been disliked, at one time or another, by almost
all the world religions. One can understand the problem: their
subversion of the creation myth radically challenges the
metaphysical order and the mechanisms of established religions.
The discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi texts can be seen as
coinciding with, if not causing, a debate about orthodoxy and
authenticity in Christianity, and encouraging scepticism about
traditional hierarchies in the Church. And you do not need to know
your Yaldaboath from your Sophia to appreciate Gnostic thought: as
any Keanu Reeves fan will tell you, the action film The
Matrix is a sophisticated Gnostic tract.
The tyranny of the material was the theme also of John Gray's
Point of View (Radio 4, Sunday, repeated from Friday).
This ten-minute slot hosts some of the most interesting comment on
the airwaves, and Gray's reflective piece on a story by Walter de
la Mare nicely encapsulated the religious problem with
In de la Mare's story of a spiritual apparition, it is the
apparition that ends up representing the real, while the world that
it has inadvertently entered is ghostly and insubstantial. It would
make a fine opera.