Beauty and evil: Wagner’s Meistersinger and the Goethe Oak phenomenon

Last week, I went to see Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (currently on at The Apollo, starring Tom Hollander – go see it!). Set predominantly in 1917, its central protagonist, Henry Carr (Hollander) is a Wodehousian character for whom Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas represent the aesthetic pinnacle of Western civilisation. Invalided out of the war, Carr is posted to the British Consulate in neutral Zurich, where he crosses paths with James Joyce (who’s in the midst of writing Ulysses), Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dadaism, an avant-garde artistic movement that celebrated nonsense and irrationality) and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin).

Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties

One of the play’s central themes is the nature of art itself. Carr, the traditionalist, clashes entertainingly with Tzara, the nonsense poet. Towards the end of the evening, Carr discovers an unlikely ally in Lenin, who rails against modern art: ‘expressionism, futurism, cubism… I don’t understand them and I get no pleasure from them.’ Which prompts Carr to quip to the audience: ‘That’s my point. There was nothing wrong with Lenin except his politics.’

It’s a good line. Like so many in the play, it combines surface humour with deep insight. It’s a profound comment – about the relationship between art and politics, beauty and evil, and our instinctive wish for good taste to be a sign of good character – dressed up as a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that Donald Trump likes his steak well-done, with tomato ketchup on the side. Cue a Twitter storm of outrage at the President’s tastelessness. Liberals everywhere latched onto it as confirmation of what we already knew: the man’s a total philistine and an authoritarian monster.

He is, of course. But the fact that Trump is both tasteless and evil is perhaps more a case of coincidence than consequence, for aesthetic taste is not, alas, a reliable indicator of moral character.

Consider Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (currently on at the Royal Opera House, starring Sir Bryn Terfel – go see it, too, if you’re able to get your hands on a ticket). It’s probably my favourite opera of all time. When I first saw it a couple of years ago at English National Opera, I came away physically and emotionally broken.

Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs in the current ROH production of Meistersinger

After more than four hours of build-up, the opera reaches its climax when a young knight called Walther (played by the magnificent Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones in both the current ROH production and the 2015 ENO production) stands up to sing his ‘prize song’ – a last-minute entry to a singing competition organised by the Nuremberg guild of master singers.

The prize Walther hopes to win is the hand of the beautiful Eva. But he’s a rank outsider, in every sense: he’s not a member of the guild and just 24 hours earlier he was totally ignorant of the master singers’ fiendishly complex rules for what makes a master song. Nonetheless, thanks to the patient coaching of Hans Sachs, he has learned the rules and prepared a prize song. The result is one of the most achingly beautiful melodies in the whole history of music.

When I first heard the prize song live and in its proper context (ie., with the four-hour musical and dramatic build-up), I was convulsed with sobs that rose uncontrollably from the pit of my stomach and shook my whole body. I’ve never, before or since, had such a physically intense reaction to a piece of music. I live in hope, but it may well be unsurpassable.

Being a Wagner fan – and a Meistersingers fan, in particular – puts one in uncomfortable company though, for, famously, Hitler was a Wagner devotee. Meistersingers was his favourite opera too. During World War II, cohorts of Nazi thugs were dispatched to Bayreuth to sit through performances of it. Most of them hated it, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody dared badmouth Wagner to his most bloodthirsty fan.

And Wagner himself, though he doesn’t deserve to be tarnished by a posthumous association with Hitler, was a deeply unpleasant man. His anti-Semitism is well-documented. Initially born of professional jealousy – Wagner had failed to break into the Paris opera scene, where Felix Mendelssohn (who’d actually been baptised a Christian at the age of seven) and Giacomo Meyerbeer were pre-eminent – over time, his resentment hardened into racism. And the way he preyed on his patrons – both the innocent, otherworldly King Ludwig II of Bavaria and, before him, the exceedingly generous Zurich-based silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, whose wife Wagner had an affair with – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

But the music transcends the man. As Georg Solti, the Jewish conductor whose pioneering recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle remains one of the bestselling classical records of all time, wrote: ‘To me, anybody who can create such beauty, whether he be half-Jewish, anti-Semite, revolutionary, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilisation lasts.’

And yet. However much we might not want it to be so, the uncomfortable truth is that beauty and evil are entirely compatible. In his 1997 book, The File, journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash uses the term ‘Goethe Oak’ as a shorthand for the ‘intimate proximity of high European culture and systematic inhumanity’ in German history. The reference is to an ancient oak tree near Weimar, under which Goethe is supposed to have written his Wanderers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song) in 1776. It was later enclosed on the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp and may even have been used for hangings during the Holocaust. ‘Goethe and Buchenwald,’ Garton Ash writes, ‘the highest and the lowest in human history, together in one place. A place called Weimar. A place called Germany. A place called Europe.’

Prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp line up for roll-call

What’s most disconcerting about the Goethe Oak phenomenon is the possibility that there is in fact a positive correlation between the richness of Germany’s cultural heritage and the monstrous evil that was perpetrated there between 1933 and 1945. Shortly after Hitler came to power, an 18-year-old Englishman, Patrick Leigh Fermor, set off to walk across Europe, passing through Nazi Germany on his way from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul). More than forty years later, in 1977, he published a book about the trip, A Time of Gifts.

Leigh Fermor’s account of his first evening in Nazi Germany, spent in a small town near the Dutch border called Goch, sticks in my mind. Seeking refuge in a cosy, traditional tavern, the young traveller settles down to write up his diary with a mug of beer in front of him. After a while, he is interrupted by a dozen SA men who come into the tavern and occupy a long table. ‘One or two, wearing spectacles, might have been clerks or students,’ he observes.

Before long, the SA men broke into song. They sang traditional German folksongs – songs about foresters’ daughters and lovely maidens amongst the linden trees. At first, the singing was jaunty and energetic, accompanied by rhythmic thumping of fists on the long table. ‘The sound would have resembled a rugger club after a match if the singing had been less good. Later on, the volume dwindled and the thumping died away as the singing became softer and harmonies and descants began to weave more complex patterns.’

That image – of the SA men spontaneously breaking into complex harmonies – encapsulates a profound truth about the fragility of human goodness. We comfort ourselves with the notion that bad people are not like us. They like their steak well-done. With ketchup!

In our mind’s eye, Hitler is permanently stuck at a podium, gesticulating wildly and working himself up into a maniacal frenzy of hatred. But the image of the Führer sitting quietly in an auditorium, listening attentively to the exquisite strains of Walther’s prize song is, in some ways, much scarier.

Henry Carr is right, you see. Bad people are like us.

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