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Can lefties like Wagner?

By Graeme Arnott

Graeme Arnott previews his granddaughter’s forthcoming production of her great-grandfather’s opera ‘Lohengrin’.

It is August 1876 and Nuremberg’s hotels are full to bursting with Wagnerians attending the first Bayreuth festival. Unable to obtain a room, Marx ends up spending an uncomfortable night on a railway station bench. Aggrieved, he castigates Richard Wagner as nothing but a bourgeois state composer.

Fair or unfair as criticism, it is hardly the worst that has, or could be said, about the controversial composer. For the Adorno of the 1930s, Wagner and his works are always guilty of stirring up the age-old German hatred of the Jew. Indeed, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand the ideology of the Third Reich without citing Wagner. Somewhat wryly Alain Badiou observed that Wagner bears an appalling anathema for both the majority of the pro-Palestinian, European left and the government of the state of Israel.

Recently though there have been a number of creditable entreaties for a communist rehabilitation of Wagner. Žižek for one, whilst by no means denying Adorno’s central thesis, that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not an idiosyncrasy but a feature inscribed into the very artistic texture of his work, has called for a violent gesture of re-appropriation that would necessitate nothing less than a putting aside of a hollow academicism that searches for proto-Nazi elements in Wagner’s operas.

Lohengrin was composed between 1845 and 1848 when Wagner worked as Kapellmeister at the Royal Dresden court. With its sentimental shimmers and sound suggesting an ideal of masculine rectitude as the essence of knightly virtue, Lohengrin certainly appears to earn Marx’s opprobrium. Yet despite Wagner’s official position at court, or perhaps because of it, he was an operational member of the local Vaterslandverein at which, in June 1848, he made an enthusiastically well-received speech calling for the extinction of the last glimmer of aristocratism. The speech alerted the authorities to Wagner’s increasingly extremist views that now bordered on Terror-ism: within a year he was fighting on the barricades in the failed Dresden revolution. Though the precise extent of Wagner’s participation is uncertain, an arrest warrant charged him with procuring hand-grenades and acting as a military observer on behalf of the provisional government. By the time of Lohengrin’s Weimar premiere in 1850, Wagner had escaped capture and fled Germany to seek political asylum in Zurich where he was a well-respected member of the Young Hegelian left.

Lohengrin tells the story of the eponymous grail-knight and his doomed effort to rescue Elsa von Brabant. Based on a thirteenth-century legend, it has everything that one might expect of a nineteenth-century Romantic opera: a part historical, part legendary, part fairy-tale setting, political skullduggery, a mysterious metamorphosing swan, a damsel in distress, a knight in shining armour, and most importantly; a forbidden question. Whilst many of these elements have gained an aspect of kitsch, Wagner described Lohengrin as his darkest tragedy; one in which beneath the surface actions there is a darker level where utopian visions pale before deep-seated fears; fears that even today can only be addressed by a strategy based upon progressive political ideologies.

Although titularly named after its ‘male hero’, Lohengrin is dramatically centred on the tragic character, Elsa von Brabant. The Duchy of Brabant is in the midst of a political crisis. Elsa is accused of murdering Gottfried, her missing brother and Christian heir to the Brabantine dynasty. She prays for a champion to defend her, and Lohengrin arrives on a schiff, magically pulled by a white swan. Before proving her innocence in a trial-by-combat, Lohengrin betroths himself to her, on the single, all important proviso that she never asks his name or enquires about his origin. She accepts, but having doubts sown about the legitimacy of Lohengrin’s power, on her wedding night Elsa asks the forbidden question and thereby shatters the fictitious unity of her sham, mercantile marriage. Lohengrin, forced to reveal his true nature, abandons her and Brabant.

Having promised never to ask the forbidden question, Elsa is, of course, put in an impossible situation by her husband, to whose better nature she cannot appeal. Even with a majority of supporters at court she cannot gain the legal right to ask the forbidden question; and so despite her vows and promises; despite her isolation, the manipulation and the political intrigue; and despite the knowledge of the loss that it will bring, she further provokes the crisis by asking the forbidden question: anything less is intolerable: it is a heroic decision. Wagner later reflected that it was Elsa who made of him a complete revolutionary.

In Barcelona there have been over two-hundred performances of Lohengrin at the Liceu since its first staging there in 1883. Katharina Wagner, in a previous production of Lohengrin in Budapest, interpreted the action as taking place during an election campaign. Staging Lohengrin in Catalonia, where the forbidden question of independence has already been asked, provides this production with more than just piquant significance. Scottish Opera, however, has never staged Lohengrin; and it is surely now time for them to do so. It’s time to put the forbidden question front and centre on the Scottish stage.

Katharina Wagner’s production of Lohengrin was to be performed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona from 19 March to 5 April. It has been cancelled and will be rescheduled.

19th Century Germany, India and Richard Wagner

By Dilip Roy FRAS

A Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society Dilip Roy is an ardent admirer of Wagner’s prose works, the Ring Cycle and an Indo-German Cultural enthusiast.

In the early nineteenth century, German intellectual thinkers such as Herder, Humboldt, Novalis, Schelling and Friedrich Schlegel firmly believed that Germany’s cultural origin stemmed from India. The German interpretations of Indian epic Mahabharata and it’s component the Bhagvadgita played a crucial role in German intellectual circles beginning in the 19th century and it is this influence that led Wagner to become a serious student of India’s classical literature and philosophy.

The surge of Indomania in the late 18th century took Germany by storm and a romance with Indian Literature and Philosophy blossomed. By the end of 19th century, Germany produced more Sanskrit scholars than the whole of Europe combined and came to be known as the Orient of the West. By 1903 Germany had 47 full time professors of Aryan studies, the main component being Indology (study of ancient Indian texts, literature and culture) and flourished in cities like Berlin, Bonn, Leipzig and Munich. The most notable professor of Sanskrit in Leipzig University at the time was none other than Hermann Brockhaus, brother in law of Richard Wagner. Germany’s interest in India had a lot to do with an affinity between India’s ancient Brahmins and the Goths.

The French Indologist Anquetil-Duperron’s Latin translation of Upanisads (1500 B.C.) was published in (1802). Widely available in Europe, it formed the basis of Schopenhauer’s Indian thought. He called it the greatest gift to mankind and interpreted it in his epic ‘The World as Will and Idea’. It is this book that went on to influence Wagner throughout his life, the concept finding its way into many of his operas including the Ring Cycle. Wagner’s fairies, the Rhine maidens, directly correspond with Apsaras celestial maidens of Indian mythology. I would also add here that in the last segment of the Ring Cycle, Wagner goes back to India’s Vedic period (2000 B.C.) when widow burning was practised. When the heroine Brünnhilde jumps onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre, she commits Sati in accordance with Brahmanic rituals.

In his diary, the Brown Book, written between (1865-1882) Wagner indicated that he was reading the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. He considered it a work of art, the grandest of grand poems against which a modern novel would look like a newspaper article. He also acknowledged Rama as a supreme hero who hails from the divine land of the Ganges. In his prose work Die Wibulengen (1848) Wagner cites India as the cradle of civilization, origin of the Nibelungs, and mother of all languages and religions. In Religion and Art Wagner traces the history of Aryans from what he considers their origins in India Aryavarta and follows their gradual migration to the West. He hails the Brahmanic Hindu religion as supreme above all for metaphysical wisdom, calling it a masterpiece without equal. It is also most likely that Wagner was inspired by Bharat’s Natyasastra (2nd century B.C.), a Sanskrit treatise comprising of Architecture, Dance, Drama and Music. It has a chapter called Rasa which has eight different emotions, Bhava a concept which Wagner uses in the Ring Cycle and went on to assimilate in his essay Gesantkunstwerk (Total Work of Art).

It must be noted here that Greek, Hindu and Norse Mythologies run parallel to each other and have similar Gods, Demons and Heroes.

KALIDASA: The Greatest Sanskrit Poet and Richard Wagner’s Germany

By Dilip Roy FRAS

A Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Dilip Roy is an ardent admirer of Wagner’s prose works, the Ring Cycle and an Indo-German Cultural enthusiast.

Kalidasa is recognized as the greatest poet in classical Sanskrit literature, a crown jewel in the Royal court of King Vikramaditya and certainly one of the greatest in world literature.

Kalidasa is said to have lived in the first millennium BCE at a place called Ujjain, a central province of India from where he wrote most of his works. It was also known as the capital of empires, a centre of culture and India’s greatest establishment for thousands of years. Kalidasa’s accomplishment is distinguished not only by the excellence of his work, but by his many talents. He was a dramatist, a writer of epic and lyric poems of extraordinary scope. His works are usually based on India’s ancient Vedas and epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Kalidasa’s status as a major poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature remains unequaled.

Kalidasa’s work influenced artistic and literary circles of Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was German Indologist Georg Foster’s translation of Shakuntala in 1803 that went on to inspire German, Danish, French, Polish, Italian, and Swedish composers (including Franz Schubert’s unfinished opera Sakontala). Another significant legacy of Kalidasa’s work was Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark’s (1830-1950) ground breaking overture to Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in 1865. A staunch supporter of Wagner, he was chiefly responsible for founding the Vienna Wagner Circle in 1872. The chorus of praise was led by a noted German Indologist Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) who published Goethe’s epigram in his fourth book of Zerstreute Blatter ‘Scattered Leaves’ (1792). He also wrote an ecstatic foreword to the second edition of Forster’s translation of Shakuntala in 1803.

However, the greatest impact was on three German intellectual giants: Goethe, Schiller and Wagner. Goethe’s affection for Shakuntala continued throughout his life and watered the seed of many motifs in his later works. In his epic work Faust, Goethe used the prologue of Kalidasa’s drama Shakuntala while Schiller interpreted the poem Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger) in his play Maria Stuart. It is no wonder, therefore that the Romantic poets and musicians of 19th century Germany fell for the plays and poems of Kalidasa.

Richard Wagner, being a great dramatist himself, was completely mesmerized by two of Kalidasa’s plays, Malavikagnimitra and Vikramorvasi. According to Cosima Wagner Diaries (1869-1877) she asked Richard if Vikramorvasi would be suitable for an opera setting. He declined, saying that it would have to be done for a Court of a kind ‘we no longer possess’. Discussing Malavikanimitra, Wagner claims we are fascinated by descriptions of Court etiquette. “Everything which we nowadays claim to be original is reflected here, but how stiff and crude Louis X1V seems in comparison”. As Wagner was not familiar with the opulence of Royal court of Indian period settings, he did not pursue it but indicated that his reading of Malavika and Agnimitra was a delight; wit, invention, grace, life and fine customs, everything about it is captivating. Wagner regarded Kalidasa as one of the greatest dramatist that ever lived also asserts and goes on to state in the same book that German language as it were would take place occupied by Sanskrit in India as a language of culture.
Between 18th and 19th century, Germany produced a greater number of Sanskrit scholars than the whole of Europe, among them, Hermann Brockhaus (1806-1877) a brother in law of Richard Wagner from whom he gained knowledge of Indian philosophy and literature, although Wagner was already an Indologist in his own right.

Goethe summarized Kalidasa’s legacy: ‘Here the poet Kalidasa seems to be in the height of his talent in representation of the natural order, of the finest mode of life, of the purest moral endeavour, of the most sovereign and of the most divine meditation, still he remains in such a manner the Lord and the Master of his creation’.

In India Kalidasa’s work has been interpreted by the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). According to German Indologists, Kalidasa was not just central to Indian literature, but to the entire Indo-European Cultural inheritance. Arthur Schopenhauer called the emergence of Sanskrit literature ‘the greatest gift to our century’.

Postscript: In today’s Germany, there are about fourteen major universities that have Indology and Sanskrit studies in their faculty; among them Heidelberg has the largest. Finally, in Wahnfried library at Bayreuth there is an extensive collection of Indian classical literature and philosophy in German which Wagner used to read.