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Wagner’s manifesto

10 May 2013

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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 fundamentalist science.

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.

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