A friend recently asked why some people have a problem with Wagner, and it brought to mind the last time I taught him in a history class. I’m not sure I have a good strategy for teaching Wagner, but I know that the next time I approach him, I’m not going to do what I did last time.
I started by talking about the adventures in Riga and even brought up the dog and the daring escape. I naturally covered his extremely offensive essay on the need to purge the Jewish elements out of music. To punctuate this, I told the anecdote about him conducting Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was extremely popular, so Wagner was under obligation to conduct his music. At least on one occasion, he made a big production of putting on a pair of children’s gloves to conduct the Mendelssohn piece which he then removed to conduct the remainder of the program (which was of music that he deemed more mature).
I told the class about his regular affairs with the chorus girls. I talked about Bayreuth and the operas. I touched on one of his final essays when he attempted to score the trifecta by saying that the answer to all of the problems facing the world was a return to the sacraments, a vegetarian diet, and the removal of Jewish influence from arts and culture. I mentioned that at least one scholar believes that he had his heart attack after Cosima confronted him about one of his affairs with a chorus girl. At this point, I heard a student in the class say, “Good.”
Then, I attempted to explain that he wrote some of the most beautiful music ever written. I played a video of Liebestod from the end of Tristan and Isolde as an example. I even brought up Father Lee’s argument in his book on Die Meistersinger. Even if Wagner was one of the most petulant human beings that walked the earth, we can at least see in Meistersinger that somewhere inside of him, he knew what a beautiful human being was.
It was all to no avail. By the time I finished the biography, the students were so offended by his personal life and attitudes that they couldn’t hear the music. I know that I will start with the music next time, but he does present an almost unsolvable pedagogical problem.
When I hear the music, I do wish that someone like Hans Sachs had written it and not Wagner. In some ways it’s good for class discussion. It does break students out of the 1:1 semiotic associations that seem to be so much a part of popular culture. I’ve heard students talk about Brahms’ longing for Clara Schumann being expressed in the Poco Alegretto from the 3rd Symphony. They don’t like to talk about Wagner’s anti-semitism being expressed in the Siegfired leitmotif. So maybe it’s all good in the end.