Wagner's Dark Shadow Can We Separate the Man from His Works?

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Part 5: Preserving the Memory of Wagner in Venice


Something is still missing in this story: love. With Wagner, of course, there is no alternative but to portray love in its grandest form. He has made love grand through death and tragedy, in characters like Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde.

Alessandra Althoff-Pugliese is an attractive, elegant woman of an indeterminate age. It's fair to say that she isn't young, but old isn't a word that fits her, either. She is the chair of the Wagner Society in Venice, a city that was important to the composer. He worked here often, and he died in the city, on Feb. 13, 1883.

It's a sunny day and Althoff-Pugliese, wearing a pretty hat, takes us to the places that were important to Wagner. The palace where he once rented 15 rooms for his family and his entourage is now a casino. There are brightly flashing slot machines, and the casino management has its offices in some of the rooms Wagner once occupied. Althoff-Pugliese has made it her mission to reclaim room after room for her society. She has already succeeded with the room in which he was writing when he was seized with a painful convulsion. She is very lively in her account, even accompanying her stories with a few ballet-like steps.

On the morning of Feb. 13, Wagner had had an argument with Cosima over a visit by another woman. He was writing at his desk when a maid, Betty, heard him moan. A doctor pronounced Wagner dead at about 3 p.m. Before the fountain pen fell from his hand, he wrote: "The process of emancipation of the female only takes place amid ecstatic convulsions. Love - Tragedy." As last words, they were fitting indeed.

At around noon, Althoff-Pugliese takes us to a restaurant that she and her husband liked to frequent. She was an opera singer and was performing at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, where she met Giuseppe Pugliese, a music critic and the founder of the Venice Wagner society. He was much older than she was, but it became a great love story. Pugliese has been dead for three years, and today his widow is continuing his work, preserving the memory of Richard Wagner in Venice.

She recommends fish for lunch, together with a white wine. She apologizes for taking red with hers. She says that whenever she comes to this restaurant, she drinks the red wine her husband used to imbibe, a Merlot from the Veneto region. She also orders dishes her husband used to eat, and talks a great deal about him -- not in a sad way but perhaps with a touch of melancholy. Most of all, however, she sounds fulfilled, almost as if she had found a way to continue her life with Pugliese. When she puts on her hat again after the meal, she says that it was her husband's hat. It's a moment in which one imagines hearing the music of Wagner, disturbingly beautiful music, filled with love and tragedy, one of his quieter passages, not quite as bombastic as the rest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Jakespeare 04/13/2013
1. Wagner
Wagner was first and foremost an Artist... and as an artist he portrayed the world he lived in with musical tones, daunting silence and thundering crescendos. True Art is totally subjective... and Wagner wasn't making musical statements of his antisemitism... he was playing back the deep and disturbing state of affairs of a Germany at war with herself and the world. If you were Wagner, the Industrial Age was stepping in and demolishing all established order. Christians in Germany had no love for the Semite either at that time. He captured chaos in his music... and it is unfair to lay National Socialism over him and his music. Germany was at the time, at the forefront of Science, Medicine, Art, Psychology and Technology. You can hear that all in his music... and the tragedy of the Titans fall from grace. Lighten Up Germany!
golestan 04/13/2013
2.
The German obsession with post-Nazi guilt borders on the absurd. Anybody who could possibly have been in a position of decision making in 1945 (say of age 21) is now at least 89 years old. Not many of them left and of those who are still there 95% had nothing to do with the horrendous crimes committed in that era. Germany’s conduct ever since the founding of the Federal Republic has been exemplary on the international scene. Now you are tainting the reputation of a great composer, who was dead 6 years before Hitler was even born, just because Hitler liked his works? I have news for you: Hitler also liked Berchtesgaden and he was a teetotaller. Are now all the teetotallers and Berchtesgaden also tainted??? ... just the opinion of a Canadian bystander.
sylvesterthecat 04/13/2013
3. Angst, angst and yet more angst
Sometimes I really despair about our German cousins. Germany manages to produce a towering genius like Richard Wagner, after giving the world the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and still worry about the fact that Wagner didn't like Jews very much. Would you have preffered a man who loved everything Jewish but couldn't write music? As he seems to be such an embarrassment to you, can I suggest that you ' find ',(perhaps under the floorboards at Wahnfried), a dusty old Birth certificate in the name of 'Dickie Wainwright' born 1813 in Felixstowe? We'll be delighted to adopt him especially as genius is in short supply these days. Incidentally, the most fanatical Wagnerians I know of, are both Jewish.
dorbarn 04/14/2013
4. How about the United States and Slavery
Slavery was upheld in our constitution... etcetc, we all know the history... can the good things that came to US history and culture through people and institutions, churches, courts, that upheld slavery be separated from this dark history?
Kurnewal 04/14/2013
5.
I think the German emphasis on obedience, respect for authority and discipline historically fostered a society where emotion was repressed. In the arts, especially music, this huge reservoir of repressed emotion could be released. This is why Germany produced a successon of composers who have no equals in musical history: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. The idea of any composer from another nation being measured against any one of these giants is ludicrous.
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