Home > Uncategorized > An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 1 of [probably] 4)

An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 1 of [probably] 4)

In the realm of “classical music,” 2013 is a year of milestone anniversaries. For instance, 29 May marks the 100th anniversary of the legendary “scandalous” premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring). Nonetheless, some bemoan the whole notion of even acknowledging them. I understand what they mean about trotting stuff out: anniversaries are arbitrarily significant based on numbers; some things just are really relevant anymore, and we’re just going through the motions with commemorations; old stuff needs to make way for new stuff; and the like. But all I can say to that is this: Sorry, but I’m going to commemorate the things that are relevant to me, which I can’t help. And I would even argue that they might remain relevant at broader sociocultural levels as well.

For those reasons, and as un-PC as it may seem to some at a number of levels, I’m going to devote much space here to wrestling with the wide-reaching significance of German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose 200th birthday falls on 22 May. It will cover some well-worn ground to set context for novices, as well as provide some thoughts that reflect my quarter-century of active engagement with Wagner.

Reflecting the ongoing polarization and contradictory depictions of Wagner that remain, and about whom much has been written, just mentioning him to those who know the name is fraught with strong reactions. There’s also the all-too-easy trap of superficial understandings, perhaps because of these varying opinions and agendas, as well as the legendary complexity and purported “heaviness” of the man’s works (or at least the bits that get the most attention). For my purposes, however, especially given my interest in listeners’ notions of similarities of music from “very different” genres, I won’t pass judgment on what might be considered technically “incorrect” connections people might make between Wagner and other kinds of music… including some of my own.

Not unlike numerous musicians from “popular” genres, Wagner has been called many things. A scoundrel. A mooch. A serial womanizer. An ill-tempered, self-centred man-child. But what really sticks is his rabid anti-Semitism. He wasn’t unique in this aspect, especially during the times he lived. But his written polemics about Jews, along with his related influence on Adolf Hitler’s ideals, maintains Wagner’s status as a lightning rod for an almost unanswerable question: Can a work of art be evaluated separately from its creator? This is especially hard for those of us who can feel profoundly moved by Wagner’s music. In my case, the intellectual challenge of writing about Wagner was compounded by emotional challenges as well.

To paraphrase Isaac Hayes, Wagner was indeed a complicated man. In addition to its affective aspects, which can repel or enrapture listeners, Wagner’s music is among some of the most revolutionary and ambitious ever created. (As Mark Twain observed, “I’m told Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”) It influenced subsequent “classical” composers, who defined themselves in relation to him, whether as disciples or dissidents; filtered to varying degrees into “very different” musical genres, including heavy metal; and inspired creators in other forms, including literature. While the extent of his influence on cinema runs the risk of being overstated, one could even say that his vision for his music dramas (Wagner disliked the term “opera”) paved the way for that medium, and perhaps even virtual environments. A political revolutionary in his early days, he inspired thinkers who would be considered antithetical to Hitler. This includes Theodor Herzl, one of the prime movers of Zionism.

Like many of us, I probably first heard Wagner before I knew the name. Most likely, it happened during the Fantastic Fun Festival, broadcast from the ABC affiliate out of Toledo, Ohio, from 4:00-5:00 on weekdays after school. Some of you probably know where this is going already.

How could one forget Elmer Fudd in quasi-Viking drag singing “Kill the Wabbit,” with Bugs Bunny disguising himself in actual drag to avoid his eventual fate… Or, at least to postpone its apparent inevitability. After all, this is Wagner, where Fate and fatality both loom large. Unusual, given that Bugs almost always outsmarts his primary nemesis in most of their battles of wits. And even after getting what he wants, Elmer regrets that he has “killed the wabbit.” But as he rallies briefly at the conclusion to break the fourth wall, Bugs reminds us, “Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?”

The music accompanying the conclusion draws upon the devout, weepy, and penitential motif that appears prominently in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. It premiered in 1845, and focuses on a man torn between Christian redemption and the pleasures of the flesh offered by Venus, as embodied in the overture and Venusberg Music / Bacchanale.

Given the time period, you can probably guess which inclination wins out. Despite Wagner’s own proclivities for the latter, he makes both appealing. Only the most hardened of non-believers and non-sensualists need not apply.

I will admit, despite the comedic tone of What’s Opera, Doc?, there was something that still pulled at my heart strings about the music. But I told myself that shouldn’t happen. After all, it was only a funny cartoon.


Despite my mother’s love of classical music, she didn’t have Wagner recordings among her LP albums. I figured this out when I rediscovered classical music in high school, and flipped through the drawer of LPs to find no Wagner at all. Not that she was adverse to it; she had recently purchased a cassette of Wagner overtures and preludes, which at least intrigued me. I recall that it contained the overture from Tannhäuser. I found something about it moving… feeling close to tears, but not quite coming to it. Oddly enough, by that time, I think I had forgotten about What’s Opera, Doc?.

My search for Wagner occurred after hearing one of Wagner’s best known pieces, which did not appear on the aforementioned cassette: “The Ride of Valkyries,” or Walkürenritt, from Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870). While it’s recognizable as the inspiration for “Kill the Wabbit,” it became permanently etched in the popular imagination 20 years later, as the full-blown operatic version blasted from helicopters during a U.S. military attack in the iconic, harrowing, and surreal scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

It subsequently became overused in any number of other movies, television shows, commercials, and who knows what else. To a much greater extent, a similar fate befell perhaps the best known, and most ubiquitous, Wagner piece: the “Bridal Chorus” from Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin, better-known as “Here Comes the Bride.”

So the odds are pretty good that you’ve heard at least some Wagner. Not only directly, but also his influence in other contexts.

I finally bought a Wagner cassette with an orchestral version of Walkürenritt in due course, with Georg Szell leading the Cleveland Orchestra in excerpts from Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, of which Die Walküre is the second of four parts. Hmmm… A multipart epic involving a ring. Sounds vaguely familiar, even though the fellow who created the other one claimed, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”


The relative quiet of the “Bridal Chorus” notwithstanding, Wagner’s music is typically associated with outsized, overwhelming power, which can evoke associations with music from a more popularly-known multipart epic. One that has captured the popular imagination since it premiered in cinemas 36 years ago this month, just a few days after Wagner’s birthdate. As in stereotypical Wagner, its soundtrack also has the requisite thunderous percussion, sweetly “lilting” and sighing strings, sharp brass sounding at once as if anticipating a ritual both sacred and profane…

This was entirely intentional. As Wagner portrayed concepts and characters with recurring themes called leitmotifs in his music dramas, so too did John Williams (1932- ), even though he drew upon subsequent composers for inspiration as well. I think we all know who comes to mind when we hear this particular number.

Even retroactively, a leitmotif can predict the future. Note its usage near the end of Attack of the Clones, which actually embodies the growing Empire of Palpatine, rather than Darth Vader himself (still a whiny James Dean wannabe at this point).

Being a child of the late 1970s and 1980s, I have to wonder if perhaps my exposure to these kinds of scores also inclined me to consider Wagner, along with other “German Romantic” composers, most especially Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949), among the my top favourites. Granted, my mother did have LPs of those composers, which must have warped my fragile little mind. But I’m sure both worked in concert, so to speak. As suggested earlier, however, Wagner’s influence on cinema went beyond Star Wars, both in terms of music and “spectacle.” The next installment discusses Wagner’s wide-ranging impact on cinema, where I proffer a few personal connections I’ve made between some film soundtracks and Wagner’s compositions.

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