Wagner on the couch: The problem was a father-fixation

January 02, 1992|By Leonard Berstein

Although the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra voted Dec. 13 to end a ban on Richard Wagner's music, which revives memories of Nazism and anti-Semitism, it postponed a Wagner concert scheduled for last week and said the 36,000 subscribers would be polled on how to proceed.

In 1985, Leonard Bernstein (who died in 1990) conducted an all-Wagner program at the Vienna State Opera. For the occasion, he wrote and filmed a script, excerpted here for the first time. The film was never finished.

I DON'T KNOW what the title of this program will ultimately be, but I have an interesting subtitle: "What's a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This, Playing That Racist Music?" For one thing, I'm not nice and I'm not a boy; for another, "a place like this" is Vienna -- a city I have come to love, a city with a unique musical heritage. Finally, I don't believe there can be such a thing as "racist music."

"The "Horst Wessel Lied" may have been a Nazi hymn, but divorced from its words it's just a pretty song. The same goes for Mussolini's fascist favorite, "Giovinezza," which is one of my favorite marching tunes.

There must have been a reason why I have never conducted a Wagner Ring opera in its entirety, or why I have only now come to do even one act of "Siegfried." Of all the Ring operas, "Siegfried" seems to be the hardest to reconcile with the Theory of Music-is-Music, perhaps because the ideology of a super-hero of a super-race is at its most blatant here.

I find certain dragons of my own to fight in this music, particularly the sometimes empty bombastic heroics in which Siegfried engages. And yet, and yet . . . the third act is a masterpiece of invention, form and style. The wonderful marriage of text and music succeeds in producing that perfect third entity -- Music-Drama -- the Wagnerian ideal. My present Freudian mood tells me that the clue to Wagner's triumph in this act is that he is dealing finally, and triumphantly, with his own basic problem: his father problem.

Siegfried's true heroism is to free himself from all his oppressive father images: the false father, Mime, whom he has destroyed in the previous act; his real father, Siegmund, whom he never knew, and now his true progenitor, Wotan, the God, the mysterious grand father (in both senses), from whom he frees himself to become a man and experience love. This brings us to the crucial issue -- Wagner's own father problem.

I know the dangers of trying to relate an artist's psyche to his created work, and, in this city of Sigmund Freud, I may be finding the texts more suggestive than usual. But how can one hear Siegfried say, "So lang ich lebe, stand mir ein Alter stets in Wege" ("All my life an old man has stood in my way") and not thing Oedipally? Not only from Siegfried's point of view, but from Wagner's point of view. What is this father problem that haunts almost every one of his works from the early "Lohengrin" to the final "Parsifal"?

Wagner, in the first 15 years of his life, thought of Ludwig Geyer, a Jewish actor who became his stepfather, as his real father; Wagner was even called Richard Geyer in school. Is it not possible that there developed self-hatred? Have we not often heard of people going to extraordinary lengths -- even to embracing racial-superiority theories (or in Wagner's case, inventing them) -- in order to deny blood origins? On the other hand, Marcel Prawy [historian of the Vienna State Opera] writes: "To the dismay of Wagner's enemies, Geyer was not a Jew."

The problem just won't go away. The aroma of father-fixation is too strong, in both the life and the art of Wagner. And what if it was only a matter of suspicion on his part, that maybe . . . Everyone knows how dramatic, even drastic, the repressing of such unwelcome thought can be. We may never be able to prove such a repression, and anyway what's the difference? Who cares? Would it make the music any better or worse if we knew? No. But brining up these questions, and seeking possible answers, could make a considerable difference in the way we hear Wagner's music in our listening attitude.

Wagner is long dead and buried, as is the Third Reich, but we music lovers are alive and hungry for great music. And if Wagner wrote great music, as I think he did, why should we not embrace it fully and be nourished by it?

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