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The popular discourse of anniversaries: Strauss & Co. By Hugo Shirley


Verdi and Wagner battle it out. (Photo from http://blog.staatsoper.de/blog/verdi-boxt-mit-wagner)

I’ve already mused elsewhere on the benefits or otherwise, in terms of programming, of the Strauss anniversary this year. In this post, however, I’d like to examine briefly how anniversaries (the theme of last September’s Oberto Conference) seem to affect the broader popular discourse regarding composers, and how, it seems, the extra exposure that anniversaries–very much double-edged swords–bring can, arguably, be helpful.

Of course, new exposure to a wider audience is to be welcomed. But the challenge is surely to bring renewed exposure that is not automatically simplified. Anyone following the great anniversary face-off in 2013 between Wagner and Verdi must have wondered, for example, if it was entirely necessary for those two composers to be pitted against each other in the way that they were. We see this conflict presented (and clearly satirised, too) in unsubtle allegorical form in this still (above) from a Bavarian State Opera publicity film.

In Britain, however, one could barely move for ostensibly more high-minded debates that, in trying to assess the very different forms of greatness of each of the composers, inevitably became reduced to a game of slinging standard, negative slurs: Wagner was an anti-Semitic megolamaniac whose works were overblown, bombastic etc. etc; Verdi, though admittedly a nicer chap, churned out tunes without ever much intellectual engagement. At its worst, the debate dissolved into barely-masked, centuries-old xenophobic stereotyping, with Wagner and Verdi there only as token representatives of their nations. Of course the media have to balance subtlety with the sort of headline-grabbing contrast and conflict that will draw readers in, but it seemed as though neither composer ever came out of the debates very well.

I’m concerned, too, that similar polarisation is at play already in the Strauss anniversary. Although, in this case, it’s the pitting of two aspects of the same composer against one another. This tweet from Radio 3’s In Tune sums it up:

ImageA think piece in the Guardian, meanwhile, was called: ‘Richard Strauss: Profound Genius or Gifted Entertainer?’, with Tom Service further asking, ‘Is his description of himself–“I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer”–mere modesty or the simple truth?’

First, of course, the idea in itself of the ‘simple truth’ is not, well, as simple or truthful as we’d like to think. Second, Strauss’s own descriptions of himself seemed, in my view, calculated specifically to undermine any attempts at canonization, the need to rank and rate composers, to place them within a convenient narrative. (Another earlier and more easily verified quotation along these lines comes from a piece by Strauss, asking, significantly, ‘Is there an Avant-Garde in Music?’, which he wrote in the first issue of new Berlin Journal, Der Morgen, in 1907. ‘Nachdenken ist immer unangenehm’ [thinking is always unpleasant], he claimed there, mischievously and provocatively.)

Strauss, of course, avoids such narratives, and the revisionist assessments of the composer over the last couple of decades have, in some ways, only emphasized how slippery and, to use a favourite word, enigmatic the composer remains. One commenter on the Guardian piece rightly asked whether or not a composer can be a profound genius and gifted entertainer. And whatever one might feel about ‘the music itself’, surely this composer’s interest and fascination lies in the fact that he was both. Perhaps the anniversary discourse should move onwards and upwards to examine that.

Bayreuth celebrates by Dr Hugo Shirley

As a taster ahead of Oberto’s fast-approaching ‘Staging Operatic Anniversaries‘ conference, here are a couple glimpses of Bayreuth in Wagner’s anniversary year. (Below, multiple mini-Richards in conductor pose in front of the Festspielhaus.)


But the composer’s house, Wahnfried, is closed for renovation, and a series of performances of Wagner’s early, non-canonic operas in July was dubbed a ‘festival of half-heartedness’. Frank Castorf’s new production of the Ring, meanwhile, has been widely criticised (here‘s the Guardian’s take on the final two instalments–it’s worth remembering, though, that by all accounts the now-classic centenary Chéreau-Boulez Ring was similarly booed). Castorf’s approach, however, was one that deflated the grandeur of the cycle at every turn and brought its characters very much down to earth, lowering the stakes and defusing the drama. Similarly, Bayreuth’s own celebrations seemed low-key and, well, somewhat un-celebratory; certainly the mocking, irreverent Wagner with tongue poking out that featured dotted around the town gave that impression.

ImageMaybe this all represents an enactment of what Andreas Huyssen, with specific reference to how one was to deal with Wagner’s vastness in the context of a modernism suspicious of such vastness, has called ‘anti-monumentality’ (a concept more recently discussed in Alexander Rehding’s Music and Monumentality). Despite the socialist Mount Rushmore that featured in Siegfried, Castorf’s Ring seemed intent on such an approach. And this feeling was only emphasised by the fact that its ‘anti-monumentalist’ stance was articulated with the aid of vast and clearly very expensive sets.

Clearly, then, the manner in which Bayreuth is honouring its birthday boy is not dictated by economic constraints. That Italy is generally believed to be giving Verdi short shrift in the anniversary year … well, that’s another matter.