Wagner’s words of wisdom

April 9, 2012

I’ve heard it said that more has been written about Richard Wagner than any other person in history except Jesus Christ. Now I’ve no idea if that’s true, but the thought of it has certainly been discouraging me from adding to that vast pile of often-fanciful idolatry and speculation.


Richard Wagner

I’d rather write about composers that are little-known to most people – Elliott Carter for instance, or perhaps Guillaume de Machaut – and in future I do plan to stick mostly to lesser-known favourites.

But Wagner has been massively important to me for a quarter of a century, and I do feel there’s a personal angle to share – which is probably more about me than him. Just yesterday, visiting the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition, I started sketching out a second blogpost that will definitely draw him into its web, so I think I’d better not put the first off any longer.

Little Thinker

Richard Wagner

The great philosophical narratives of love, power, suffering and liberation at the heart of Wagner’s dramas have woven themselves into my life along with the other big experiences that built my emotional world. Responses and interpretations shift and grow as I do. These are like old friends that have fabulous stories to tell when I meet them again.

But aside from all that, there are certain little things – somewhere between aphorisms and anecdotes – that stick with me. Words of wisdom that are potent but of a more everyday nature, and in some cases really quite trivial or comical. They all come from The Ring and Die Meistersinger; I will start with the former.

1. If you get a chance to ask questions, ask the ones that really matter.

“Was zu wissen dir frommt, solltest du fragen…. Nach eitlen Fernen forschtest du; doch was zunächst dir sich fand, was dir nützt, feil dir nicht ein.”

The opera Siegfried includes a classic forfeit-your-head-for-three-riddles fairytale scenario, and Mime makes the mistake of engaging in general chit-chat rather than actually asking for the crucial information he needs. As a project manager this thought helps me on an almost daily basis.

2. I’ve never seen such a thing before – well, you have now!

“Heut hast du’s erlebt! Erfahre so, was vob selbst sich fügt, sei zuvor auch noch nie es geschehn”

Wotan & Fricka

Deborah Voigt & Bryn Terfel

The context for this is Wotan’s row with Fricka in Die Walküre, in which she furiously defends convention while he sharply dismisses it with modernist aplomb. This touches the heart of the Ring’s conflict between morality based on rules and based on individual feeling. But it’s also simply a reminder that all can change, and to have a certain humility about perceived certainties.

3. Go and find adventure before breakfast.

“Zu neuen taten, teurer Helde, wie liebt’ ich dich, ließ ich dich nicht?”

After an inspiring night with Brünnhilde, Siegfried heads off with his horn at the crack of dawn to seek noble deeds and acts of heroism. Brünnhilde acknowledges that it wouldn’t be true love if she tried to hold him back. There’s simply a lot I like about this, as an aspirational way to be.

4. Make up your own rules, then follow them.

“Wie fang’ ich nach der Regel an? Ihr stellt sie selbst und folgt ihr dann.”

Moving onto Die Meistersinger, the opera that means the most of all to me, this is a great piece of advice for the young from Hans Sachs, applicable to cobbling, poetry and all of life. I appeal to this thought when I don’t know what is expected of me – for example, going into some new coffee shop or bakery that has a really bewildering process flow.

Hans Sachs

Hans Sachs

“Wer als Meister geboren, der hat unter Meistern den schlimmsten stand.”

Sachs supports this line of thought by pointing out that those who have genuine talent are often judged harshly when seen through traditional eyes.

5. From time to time check that the rules are still useful.

“Doch einmal im Jahre fänd ich’s weise, daß man die Regeln selbst probier’.”

This is really a variant on the previous point. Very useful in the corporate world!

6. Relax, nothing’s under control.

“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn.”

The slippery concept of Wahn is at the heart of Die Meistersinger, and while it has a metaphysical meaning in the context of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, it’s also potent at a more basic level. Everywhere in life is folly, disorder and delusion, and while it can be maddening, nothing is ever achieved without a touch of this madness.

Sachs intends to guide it for noble ends, in both creating the Prize Song and facilitating Walther and Eva’s romance:

“Jetzt schau’n wir, wie Hans Sachs es macht, daß er den Wahn fein lenken kann.”

And in the same scene he goes on to place Wahn at the heart of poetry – fuelling the inspiration that comes from the world of dream, the unconscious:

“Des Menschen wahrster Wahn wird ihm im Traume aufgetan: All’ Dichtkunst und Poeterei ist nichts als Wahrtraum-Deuterei.”

7. Non-attachment to the joys of youth.

Die Meistersinger is powerfully expressive of the loss and gain involved in progression through life. It presents an unusually subtle picture of the joys and sorrows of youth and maturity and the conflicts between them, covering similar territory to Der Rosenkavalier, which I find comparably moving.

Tomlinson & Koch

Wolfgang Koch & John Tomlinson

Sachs explains his decision not to compete for the hand of Eva by recollecting the tragedy of Tristan und Isolde, set in train by an arranged betrothal to an older man that cannot compete with the reckless intensity of love.

“Mein Kind: Von Tristan und Isolde kenn’ ich ein traurig Stück: Hans Sachs war klug und wollte nichts von Herrn Markes Glück.”

Sachs wants none of it. But interestingly, one of the joys of art is precisely that it connects us to that intensity of feeling which is not always compatible with reality.

Fortunately, there is more to life than the first flush of youth, and ultimately Die Meistersinger delivers a profoundly generous message. I’ll finish with this, which is one of the passages I most often recall (it’s at 4:45 in the clip below):

“Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit,

wenn uns von mächt’gen Trieben

zum sel’gen ersten Lieben

die Brust sich schwellet hoch und weit,

ein schönes Lied zu singen

mocht vielen da gelingen:

der Lenz, der sang für sie.

Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterszeit

viel Not und Sorg im Leben,

manch ehlich Glück daneben:

Kindtauf, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit: –

denen ‘s dann noch will gelingen

ein schönes Lied zu singen,

seht: Meister nennt man die!”

– – – – –

“My friend, in the sweet time of youth,

When the breast swells high with the mighty impulse of first love,

Many have succeeded in singing a beautiful song:

Spring sang for them.

But when summer, autumn and winter come,

with much hardship and care,

Much married joy as well – baptism, business, discord and strife:

Those who can still succeed in singing a beautiful song,

They are called ‘Master’!”

One Response to “Wagner’s words of wisdom”

  1. amblonyx Says:

    Art takes us out of our runaway train lives for a breath and gives us little touchstones to remind us of truths we should hold onto but seldom do. These are really good examples.

    I could express this better with less cider inside me!

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