(Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s article appeared in The Spectator, 12/13.)
Nearly all the famous artistic controversies in the aesthetic history of the western world — the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in France and the contest between the rococo and neoclassical schools across Europe in the middle of the 18th century; the subsequent rivalry between the Classicists and the Romantics and the contretemps in the late-19th century between the Realists and the Impressionists — are as dead, irrelevant and forgotten today as the wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The sole exception, so far as I know, is the once bloody and bitter opposition between the Wagnerians and the Italian operatic school, which, though a good deal attenuated, continues to burble on among the critici and appassionati of the operatic world. I was reminded of its longevity when, a year or so ago, I read an essay in The Spectator of London by Michael Tanner claiming that, while Giuseppe Verdi’s centennial in 2014 passed almost unremarked, Wagner’s reputation remains immense. Mr Tanner clearly believes the implied judgment of the relative merits of the two composers to be a solid one.
From the beginning Richard Wagner has been the intellectual operagoer’s Held: the heroic composer who wrote his own libretti, poetic dramas to accompany his musical masterpieces. Nietzsche was his great friend and admirer for years before breaking with the maestro for personal and artistic reasons; Wagner’s music lacked rhythm and melody, he decided, and left him physically ill. And after Nietzsche came Shaw, the author of The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring (1898), who wrote the pamphlet, he said, ‘for the assistance of those who wish to be introduced to the work on equal terms with that inner circle of adepts…[Its] dramatic moments lie quite outside the consciousness of people whose joys and sorrows are all domestic and personal, and whose religious and political ideas are purely conventional and superstitious.’ Shaw, being Shaw, understood The Ring in Marxist terms, an interpretation that Wagner, who had died 15 years before, was unavailable to protest. Giuseppe Verdi, Wagner’s artistic nemesis, who lived until 1901 and thus had three years in which to claim a similarly exalted interpretation for his own operas, nevertheless failed to do so, thus giving the Perfect Wagnerites an excuse to insist that, by comparison with their man, the composer of Aïda, Otello and Falstaff had been a Piedmontese hurdy-gurdyist.
Though Wagner was no Marxist, he did hold the bourgeoisie in similar contempt — the minority of it that patronized the arts, anyway. Thus he viewed the Italian, French, and popular German composers of his day as vulgar tunesmiths eager to please the Jockey Club in Paris and the cafoni in the provincial opera-houses of Italy. He himself, Wagner determined, would single-handedly lift opera into the musical, philosophical and even religious stratosphere. This ambition, however, involved a confusion of critical terms.