(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 5:13 AM Eastern on 27 Sep. See below)
Oh!, the mischief that can take place in the cultural blogosphere while one's absent for but a single morning.
Alex Ross [in this post] justly calls this sort of thinking "an elegant paraphrase of Schopenhauer" .... [...] How can intelligent people, who are not untrained in music, really think of music as so ineffably mysterious?
First off, while I thank Alex Ross for his "elegant," I really must take exception to his "paraphrase." My expressed view may have echoed Schopenhauer, but my thinking on this matter was formulated independently some two decades before I became familiar with Schopenhauer's writings. Needless to say, when I read them I was thrilled to find him on this matter in complete agreement with my own view.
As to Dr. Downey's remarks, I must say I'm not in the least surprised to find him taking the position he does, or to find his criticisms so up close and personal vis-à-vis both Wagner and myself. Dr. Downey is a musicologist with some rather curious ideas about Wagner and his music-dramas; a musicologist who believes that,
At the end of the day, what Wagner did was compose operas, works of music for orchestra and singers on a stage, nothing more. Wagner was a careful student of his own country's opera and of French grand opera, although he later tried to deny that he had been influenced by anything other than his own immortal genius. To remove Wagner from the continuum of development of operatic history and view his works as a special case set apart is to share in the man's egotism. It is much more sensible to analyze Wagner and appreciate his works in the same terms as [ordinary Italian or French opera]. That is, in fact, the dispassionate, the unbiased, the scientific, the musicological way to approach Wagner ....
(The above quote taken from a lengthy and , um, spirited exchange on Wagner and his music-dramas between Dr. Downey and myself earlier this year in a comments thread on his weblog, but which comments thread seems to have gone missing, and so no link, although the post to which they were attached is still accessible.)
Dr. Downey's understanding of the musical and dramatic structure of the Ring is also curious; curious enough that he could say (in this post) of Walküre, Act I that,
Unfortunately, in the second scene, Wagner advances the story with one of those long dialogues, punctuated with less thrilling [than in the first scene], long instrumental solos. (This is not only a confusing way to present the story, as Hunding and Siegmund gradually reveal who they are and how they are connected, but it could be presented in the space of a minute or so with a more traditional recitative.)
and curious enough that Dr. Downey could comment (in the same post) concerning one of Wagner's (self-acknowledged) greatest blunders in Walküre that,
in the third scene [of Walküre, Act I], some of Wagner's greatest successes are adaptations of the more or less traditional "aria," such as Sieglinde's "O merke wohl, was ich dir melde!" and, of course, the famous pieces sung by Siegmund and Sieglinde, "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" and "Du bist der Lenz."
and curious enough so that of perhaps Wagner's greatest triumph in the whole of the Ring the second act of Walküre, which is the pivot of the entire tetralogy, and its most profound and arguably most riveting single act Dr. Downey had this to say (also from the same post):
At the opening of Act II, Wagner teases us with the excitement of the music for the Ride of the Valkyries [sic], only to meander for the rest of the opera's longest act through interminable dialogues.
Dr. Downey is also of the mind (in this post) that,
[the] idea that the orchestra in Wagner is supposedly not an "accompaniment" but equal in importance to, if not more important than, the singers ... is just semantic quibbling. [...] [T]he fact is that it is still "accompanying" a singer. There would be no opera without the singers on the stage: they are primary in importance. In his later works, Wagner has his orchestra, often quite extensive, weave a complicated web around [sic] the singers, but Verdi's late operas are just as complicated orchestrally.
Well, there's more, but the above quotes are enough to get the idea. Dr. Downey simply doesn't like Wagner very much, and has only the most skewed and superficial understanding (i.e., a biased academic musicologist's understanding) of the musical and dramatic structure of Wagner's music-dramas. It's no wonder, no wonder at all, that he
suspect[s] that when ACD says [in this post] that "technical language or comment [is] useless [...] in explaining how the music works to affect a receiver in the case of absolute music," it is the sacrosanctity of his own views on music he loves that he so zealously seeks to defend. Let us remember that ACD, without the slightest trace of irony, has labeled his beloved Wagner's Ring "an immortal work written by a music immortal." With the same certainty I have in the superiority of Scott [Spiegelberg's] side of this argument [here and here], I equally believe that Scott's ideas, while interesting for the rest of us to read on the sidelines, will not make any impression on a mind that is so convinced that music is a locked mystery, to which it holds the only key.
Update (5:13 AM Eastern on 27 Sep): Charles T. Downey responds.