I keep trying to understand why so many heap so much praise on Wagner. Examples that illustrate the claim would help a slow learner like me.To which we responded:
You will never understand no matter how many examples are supplied as you are a textbook case of the classic Wagner-hater; a hatred grounded in ignorance which ignorant state causes you no discomfort whatsoever.Almost immediately began a fusillade of insults from various members, such as: "the notoriously pompous and fatuous [Wagner] fanboy", "overinflated buffoon", "One's heart sinks at seeing AC Douglas back in these precincts ... perhaps this time he will be banned", "Ah, thank God for the 'ignore user' button", and, "Stop responding to it [i.e., A.C. Douglas] for Chrissake. Ignoring it [i.e., A.C. Douglas] works better than complaining", the first of which insults came from the above noted classic crypto-Wagner-hater, and the last two from a totally surprising and unexpected source which two insults we suspect are, at least in part, belated payback for this 2007 S&F entry. We're fairly used to being attacked or excoriated on online classical music forums and, to be perfectly candid, calculatedly invite such response by provocatively ridiculing or exposing the ignorant thinking that so commonly pervades such venues, but rarely have we ever encountered such raw insult from so many on a single occasion. Perhaps it's time we rethought our online forum tactics and found another way to achieve our intent of setting straight the, um, less than informed reasoning and thinking that's so large a part of online classical music forum discourse. Nah.
Discouraging people from getting into Wagner isn't, to be honest, very hard. Just three little words will scare away all but the hardiest. Here's. The. Libretto. No one — not even the great Bryan Magee, who plays a very fun game of Schopenhauerian snap in Wagner and Philosophy — has ever managed to give a decent defence of Wagner's operas without adding a thousand qualifications. Everyone admits that the plots are, of course, very silly. And dramatically deficient. And virtually impossible to stage. And that there's no realism to any of it. And that the jokes aren't worthy of the Chuckle Brothers. And that the inclusion of potions to further psychological development is hugely primitive. And that Siegfried is a bit of a twat - as is Parsifal. And that the characters of Mime ... and Beckmesser are both nasty Jewish caricatures. And that the music can be a bit suffocating. And that no one's ever seen a decent production of any of them. Any Wagnerian worth their [sic] salt would then counter with the argument that these defects are merely dramaturgical. Wagner's genius is primarily as a breathtakingly original composer, not as a playwright. His music eclipses the faults of his librettos. And yet if this was true, if his genius lay mostly in the music, and this same genius almost completely, embarrassingly, fails him on stage, why do we continue to fritter away millions of pounds attempting to fix his faulty theatrics?And Mr. Toronyi-Lalic's answer?
We do it because we believe Wagner to be an exceptional artist with exceptional things to say about the human condition. Wagner was no doubt an exceptional artist. But he was an even more exceptional anti-Semite. His thoughts on the human condition are, therefore, exceptional only in their monstrosity. And nowhere is this misanthropic, monstrous world view more fully or clearly formulated than in his operas. In every character, in every plot line, in every philosophical postulation in every verse, Wagner's own fundamental inhumanity reveals itself.As we've covered all this ground and addressed all these questions a number of times before on S&F over the years in a number of various entries, we trust all this manifestly mindless and ignorant, even libelous, rubbish needs no point-by-point demolishing by us in the instant case, especially as it concerns Wagner's libretti and his dramatic gifts or, according to Mr. Toronyi-Lalic, Wagner's lack of same. Not content with his Wagner-ignorant remarks so far, Mr. Toronyi-Lalic then goes on to hold Wagner in large part culpable for the phenomenon of Hitler and the Third Reich, concluding that,
Hitler ... wasn't a Nazi who happened to enjoy Wagner. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner.In his remarks on the Wagner-Hitler connection, Mr. Toronyi-Lalic compounds his manifest Wagner ignorance by his ignorance of German history as it relates to both Hitler and the Third Reich choosing to depend on the popular writings on both by the late, popular German journalist Joachim Fest who, to lend more weight and authority to his case in his response to critics of his ignorant article, Mr. Toronyi-Lalic identifies as a "revered historian and Hitler biographer." He bypasses altogether (surprise!) even so much as a mention of the minutely detailed, authoritative, all but definitive, 2000-page, two-volume study of Hitler and the Third Reich — Hitler (Norton, 2000) — by the eminent historian and Hitler and Nazi-era authority, Ian Kershaw, (Volume 1 - Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, Volume 2 - Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis) in which 2000 pages there are but a mere 30 or so references to Wagner, almost all merely noted en passant, all having to do with Hitler's attachment to and love of Wagner's operas, and none even so much as suggesting that Wagner had any actual or credible seminal political or ideological influence — theoretical or practical — on Hitler or on the formation and ideology of the Third Reich through the vehicles of his (Wagner's) prose writings or stageworks. The fact of the matter is, of course, that Hitler, like all such tyrants, merely took from Wagner what suited his (Hitler's) already formed ideology and decided-upon purpose, and used Wagner's name, stageworks, and writings (what little of them he read) to lend credibility and weight to his own murderously obscene ideas. On first reading Mr. Toronyi-Lalic's article, we decided that the article's title (which title may or may not have been written by Mr. Toronyi-Lalic) and the season offered a clue as to Mr. Toronyi-Lalic's intent in writing the article, and so giving him the benefit of the doubt, commented in the article's comment section:
Excellent! Absolutely hilarious. Good Christmas cheer. My compliments. You're a comic genius.However, Mr. Toronyi-Lalic's response to that comment:
Those who are assuming that anyone who dislikes Wagner and his racism must be joking are revealing a remarkable poverty of imagination. Das is kein Spaß [this is no joke], folks! Sorry!immediately set us straight, and so we further commented:
It was NOT your "dislik[e] [of] Wagner and his racism" that provoked my remark, but my giving you the benefit of the doubt. Your piece could have been written only by someone whose comic intention was to play Scrooge vis-à-vis Wagner's stageworks as Dickens's Scrooge was vis-à-vis the celebration of Christmas, or by someone who is a manifest Wagner ignoramus and an opera simpleton into the bargain. Your ... response makes clear which of the two you are, and makes clear as well how unworthy you were to receive my charitable benefit of the doubt.Mr. Toronyi-Lalic's CV on The Arts Desk ("Britain's first professional arts critical website") reads:
Igor Toronyi-Lalic writes on opera, classical music and the arts for The [London] Times, Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Opera and Opera Now. He is the Classical Music Editor at [The Arts Desk] ... as well [as] being one of the site’s founding members.Oh dear. So much for professional classical music criticism on the Web and in much of the mainstream press and periodicals in today's postmodern era. Is it any wonder classical music is in trouble today?
It was immensely interesting to hear to-night's performance, if only to assure ourselves that we will not miss anything essential to the art of fugue if we never hear the work performed again. The B.B.C. must be congratulated for their boldness in broadcasting so complex and abstract a stretch of music. But I cannot resist saying this — if anybody who listened in to-night felt he was being scared from Bach for ever, let him run out and buy a gramophone record of the Aria on the G string. There is more great music in it than in all The Art of Fugue put together.'Nuff said.
The function of criticism is the reeducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear. The conception that its business is to appraise, to judge in the legal and moral sense, arrests the perception of those who are influenced by the criticism that assumes this task. The moral office of criticism is performed indirectly. The individual who has an enlarged and quickened experience is one who should make for himself his own appraisal. The way to help him is through the expansion of his own experience by the work of art to which criticism is subsidiary. The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic's office is to further this work, performed by the object of art. Obtrusion of his own approvals and condemnations, appraisals and ratings, is sign of failure to apprehend and perform the function of becoming a factor in the development of sincere personal experience. We lay hold of the full import of a work of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic's privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it.Think now of the classical music critics writing today in the English language mainstream media worldwide (and on blogs and other online publications, too, for that matter) who meet these criteria (and by the term classical music we mean to include opera as well). Have you managed to come up with more names than can be counted on the fingers of one hand? Bet not. We surely can't, and woe to us and the future of classical music as an artform in our culture for the deficit. Part of the problem, of course, is that most classical music critics today aren't given enough column inches per review to do the job properly. But that's a symptom of the same disorder, not a cause.
Given the absolute ease today of self-publishing a POD book the physical product of which is absolutely indistinguishable from the physical product put out by any major house, and given the amount of non-writing work commercial publishers today expect an author to perform in the peddling of a published book, what irreplaceable service does a commercial publisher provide an ordinary (i.e., non-celebrity) author today for its 85%-90% cut of the book's sales price beyond the stroking of the author's ego and vanity by the prestige of being published by a commercial house? I've of course asked myself the same question, and no matter how I twist it, the answer I come up with is none. Nada. Zero. Zip. Bupkiss. I guarantee you that anything you come back at me with, I'll be able to come up with an alternate way to accomplish the same end, and just as effectively, even when economies of scale are taken into consideration. Your thoughts, please, as I suspect I must be missing something.That eMail never made it onto that agent's blog, nor was it even so much as acknowledged. Surprise! — or, rather, no surprise at all. It's time the commercial book publishing industry stopped asking itself for whom the bell tolls. Manifestly, my dear dinosaur, it tolls for thee.
Having purchased one of the very first IBM PCs produced (c. 1981), and equipping it with a modem as soon as that device and the software necessary to run it became available for home-user use, we've had a long experience of online discussion groups (called in those pre-Internet, pre-Web days, a Bulletin Board System, or, more familiarly, a BBS), and, generally speaking, found participation in such groups to be enormously satisfying as long as we were careful in our selection of which BBSes to join.
Well, BBSes have long gone the way of the dodo, and so-called eMail "lists" and Usenet — a kind of internationally organized and distributed BBS which actually predates the BBS format and was the first of its kind — are fast going the same way as they're relatively clumsy to use, and limited to posts employing text only, and plaintext at that. The online forum is today the de facto standard online discussion group, and there are gazillions of them out there, most of them cluttered intolerably with whiz-bang "features" and a plethora of sub-forums, and therefore the haunts of kiddies of all ages, and so to be scrupulously avoided (unless you're a kiddie, that is).
Given their in-gazillions presence, one would expect that one could find a worthwhile, non-cluttered, non-kiddie-populated online forum devoted solely to discussions centering on one's special interests whatever those special interests might be. Turns out, that's sometimes a lot harder to do than it might appear. We've, for instance, searched for years for such an online forum devoted solely to discussion of the works of Richard Wagner, and found none. The best we could find was, ironically enough, not an online forum, but a Usenet newsgroup (newsgroup is the Usenet term for forum of which Usenet has thousands). But as we above noted, Usenet is relatively clumsy to use and limited in expression. We wanted something better, but it didn't seem to be out there.
Until now, that is.
All the above has been merely a long-winded way of introducing a spanking new online forum (it went online just yesterday) called, The Wagner Group. It has no user posts as of this writing, and but a single member: our good self. TWG is an online forum that's absent every kiddie magnet the software permitted us to remove, has an absolute minimum of online-forum clutter, is powerful but simple and intuitive to use, and is devoted solely to discussion of the works of Richard Wagner.
So, if the works of Richard Wagner are your thing, or you think they might have the potential to be, stop by TWG, register (it's absolutely free, and "guests" — i.e., the non-registered — have only read-only access on TWG), and contribute a post or four to start the discussion going.
It will come as no news to regular readers of S&F that we've an abiding contempt for the type of opera-lover whom we've derisively labeled a TOF (True Opera Fan — a bit like a teenage movie fan only worse; much worse). Because the TOF sees opera mainly, even exclusively, in terms of the singers, he's all but entirely disregardful of the central characteristic of all genuine opera: opera as music-drama, as dramma per musica, which is to say (as did the brilliant musicologist Joseph Kerman in his seminal book, Opera as Drama), as drama through the agency of music. It's no wonder, then, that TOFs are the biggest fans of the operas of the Italian bel canto rep as those operas are little more than showcases for songbirds, the rest of it being merely pretext and platform as we've often remarked, such drama as does exist being of the sort that finds its natural home on TV afternoon soaps.
One consequence of the TOF's approach to opera is his propensity to engage in reading and/or writing running commentary — in Web forums, blog comments sections, and/or in specially set up chat rooms — on the singers' performances while a live broadcast or streaming audio of the opera is in progress, much like the running commentary on the athletes' performances provided by sports announcers during the live broadcast of, say, a baseball or football game. It's of course quite impossible to get involved with or become immersed in the drama of an opera, even the mostly risible soap-opera melodrama of much Italian opera, while one is busy reading and/or writing such running commentary.
Which brings us to the subject of this brief commentary: reading and/or typing during a live classical music concert Twitter Tweets concerning the concert while the music is actually in progress.
Anne Midgette, the savvy chief classical music critic of The Washington Post, is
bothered by adherence to ... the [hard-line] idea that Twitter is inherently bad [when used during a live classical music concert] because nobody’s attention ought to be distracted from the music even for a moment. [...] I don’t think ... [instructive] Tweets [during the ongoing music at live classical music concerts] are meant for those who listen with total concentration; they’re meant for people who aren’t concentrating and would like some help getting in to the music.
The gifted concert violinist Hilary Hahn, on the other hand, while "all for Tweeting and spreading the word," cautions against doing so
during performances [at live classical music concerts]. [...] Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you're not really listening, we're not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window.
And where do we come down on this Tweeting matter (as if you already didn't know)? We think it an even more damaging prole-pandering device than that erstwhile prole-pandering horror called The Concert Companion (happily, now safely dead). One quite simply cannot get involved with or become immersed in the ongoing music while one is busy reading and/or writing Tweets to get "some help getting in to the music." If one is in need of such help the time for getting it is before the concert or, alternatively, after, but never during, which last defeats the purpose of attending a live classical music concert in the first place which is (or ought to be) to experience the music in the best of all possible ways as best one can. And that, unlike what's largely true of the music at rock, country, or pop "concerts", requires close, undistracted, attentive listening. The inherent nature of the very music itself demands it.
But we don't wish to belabor this already talked to death point. All the above is merely to get our position on the matter on the record here on S&F; something we thought we did previously, but to our dismay discovered we'd only somewhat snarkily glossed the matter almost en passant.
[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 2:00 PM Eastern on 1 Aug. See below.]
Blogger, lawyer, and freelance writer Zach Carstensen of The Gathering Note — a fine classical music blog heretofore unknown to us but called to our attention via a post by Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions, and now added to our exclusive Culture Blogs listing on our left sidebar — has this to say about arts critics and arts criticism:
I am not a journalist by training but I have freelanced. I am a lawyer. I didn’t go to J school and I have never been a staff critic. What I know is arts journalism is changing and I think it is changing for the better. Arbiters of taste are becoming a thing of the past when the Internet and recorded music can help anyone become an expert on Brahms, Beethoven, or even someone like Conlon Nancarrow. There are more tools than ever for people to form opinions about the music they are hearing and the events they are going to and just as many ways to express an opinion about what they are hearing. Facebook and Twitter let Average Joes pan a performance or tout its virtues.
These changes might seem unsettling. For people who run magazines and newspapers it is probably as unsettling as the emergence of Napster was to the recorded music industry. I think these changes bother people because they diminish the power of the print media as an opinion maker.
Arts organizations are nervous for completely different reasons. As magazines, newspapers, and critics disappear there are fewer mainstream publications telling them their performances are good. Ironically this hand wringing is occurring at the same time the explosion of social networking and other platforms has made it easier for their audience to comment on what they are hearing. This new type of commentary isn’t always good, but some of it is very good especially when compared to the Mad Lib concert reviews we have become accustomed to. Ultimately, shouldn’t the opinion of the audience matter more than someone who brands himself a critic?
In the world of the arts (as opposed to the world of popular culture), the answer to that question is, of course, a resounding No — that is, assuming the one who "brands himself a critic" has the education, training, experience, and expertise that would bestow upon him a right to that title. For arts organizations to look to and take in earnest the opinions of the arts world equivalent of the Common Man to assess how well they're doing artistically is a perfect prescription for artistic suicide. The arts world's Common Man may be entitled to an opinion, but it's entirely worthless to anyone but himself and his kind. To say the thing less generously, the arts world's Common Man is not entitled to an opinion beyond expressing that he liked or disliked whatever it is he heard and/or saw, and, given the source, we all know just how worthless that sort of judgment is except to the one declaring it.
Mr. Carstensen then muses,
I don’t believe critics will disappear, but their role will change. Someone has to shape the discourse. Maybe the role of the critic is one of a moderator; someone who might expound on a subject but never pretend to be the final word on a subject. Maybe a critic is someone who is interested in what other people have to say and is willing to provide a forum for them to express themselves. Maybe the critic is the conduit between the media that remain, the audience, and the musicians. What do you think the role of the critic should be?
And the answer to that question is that the role of a genuine arts critic (i.e., someone who has the education, training, experience, and expertise that would bestow upon him a right to that title) should and ought to be what it's been since Day One: to provide illumination for, and educate and generally enlighten the arts world's Common Man, and to provide aesthetically, technically, and historically well-informed critical feedback to arts organizations who have forever looked to well-informed critics to help them (the arts organizations) make clear-eyed assessments of their own artistic performance notwithstanding their perennial and de rigueur bitching and moaning about the uselessness of critics and what they have to say.
We fervently hope Mr. Carstensen is right in his expectation that arts critics (genuine arts critics, of course) will not disappear. They're a necessary element in and component of a culturally healthy and flourishing arts scene, for in their absence yawns the mosh pit.
Update (2:00 PM Eastern on 1 Aug): Zach Carstensen responds by selectively quoting from and commenting on our above (he omits quoting or making any comment on or mention of what we had to say regarding the central issue to hand: the role of the arts critic), and in the process thoroughly misunderstands our point while unwittingly confirming it; viz., that the arts world's Common Man isn't qualified or competent to hold an opinion beyond expressing what they liked or didn't like about what they heard and/or saw (or will hear and/or see). None but a properly educated, trained, experienced, and expert arts critic is qualified and competent to express opinions beyond that and have those opinions worth something other than their worth to the one expressing them.
What's that we hear you saying? That's an outright elitist position to take?
You betcherass it is. It's also an ineluctable truth of the real world.
The #operaplot contest which ends midnight (EDT) tonight, and which was conceived, organized, and executed by Miss Mussel of The Omniscient Mussel wherein one must summarize an entire opera plot in the 140 alpha-numeric characters permitted by a Twitter tweet, has been phenomenally (and we use the term advisedly) successful. Miss Mussel secured the services of opera singer Danielle De Niese to act as judge, and the participation of some 20 opera companies to offer tickets as prizes for the winners. As of last count, there have been close to 500 #operaplot entries among which are four by us. We tried to be a good sport about it, and opened a Twitter account expressly for the purpose of making our entries, but Twitter turned out to be such a PITA to use that we deleted our account, and posted our four entries to Miss Mussel's #Operaplot Non-Twitter Entry Form instead.
Is the whole #operaplot contest idea really silly? We thought so at first, but the totally unexpected (by us) widespread and laudatory interest it's generated in the cyber world, an interest that's extended even to the MSM, caused us to change our mind as it can only be a good thing for classical music generally and for opera in particular; ergo, our participation.
Herewith, our four #operaplot entries:
1: #operaplot: Three flirts, a lovesick dwarf, two big dummies & a double-dealing control freak learn it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.
2: #operaplot: Notorious rake kills old guy, then laughingly invites old guy's ghost to dinner. Bad idea. Ghost accepts. Rake gets burned.
3: #operaplot: Young simpleton shoots swan. Old windbag appalled. Half-crazed woman enlightens Simpleton. Simpleton declared redeemer and king.
4: #operaplot: Evil queen sends flute-playing prince on bogus mission. Prince toots on flute, wins princess, foils queen. Queen left bereft.
Our warm congratulations to Miss Mussel on the astonishing success of her imaginative venture, and our advance congratulations to the contest's eventual winners.
We just don't get it. We tonight watched a report by PBS's first-rate NewsHour on the growing tanking of the ink-on-paper editions of major and not-so-major daily newspapers nationwide, and the pervasive moaning and groaning over that turn of events among news people is quite beyond our understanding. At this point in time we're frankly surprised that any ink-on-paper newspapers are still in business. They shouldn't be. They ought to have been out of business several years ago — all of them — and their publications migrated to the Web entirely, just where they ought to be. There's simply no justification — or need — for ink-on-paper newspapers today. None. They all can do more — much more — and do it better — much better — digitally on the Web than they ever could in print, and do it without cutting so much as an iota of editorial or reportorial staff. By discarding the ink-on-paper model completely they eliminate a huge overhead that's economically crippling and totally unnecessary and unjustifiable today. As for ad revenue, no problem. Current advertisers, and new ones besides, will have no choice but to follow them all to the Web because, to paraphrase what the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton once famously said, that's where the money is as that's where the readers are — or, rather, will be once the changeover is made.
We freely confess we're an unreconstructed romantic and understand fully the nostalgia and romance of newspapers, and quietly mourn the ineluctable passing of a venerable, centuries-old tradition. But we’re also a realist, and nostalgia and romance are no excuse for willfully committing economic suicide. So stop your moaning and groaning news people, get those Web sites up and running efficiently online, and start doing what you do best and can do better there than you ever could in print.
His name is Matt Labash. He writes for The Weekly Standard and we've never heard of him before much less read any of his work his recently discovered (by us) sterling reputation among journalists notwithstanding. Mr. Labash doesn't much like Facebook, the Internet's premier "social networking" site. Neither do we, and mostly for the same reasons. Writes Mr. Labash:
Look at the outer shell — the parachute pants, the piano-key tie, the fake tuxedo T-shirt — and you might mistake me for a slave to fashion. Do not be deceived. Early adoption isn't my thing. I much prefer late adoption, that moment when the trend-worshipping sheeple [sic] who have early-adopted drive the unsustainable way of life I so stubbornly cling to ever so close to the edge of obsolescence, that I've no choice but to follow. This explains why I bought cassette tapes until 1999, why I wouldn't purchase a DVD player until Blockbuster cashiered their VHS stock. Toothpaste? I use it now that it's clear it's here to stay.
So I'm not inflexible. But there is one promise I've made to myself. And that is that no matter how long I live, no matter how much pressure is exerted, no matter how socially isolated I become, I will never, ever join Facebook, the omnipresent online social-networking site that like so many things that have menaced our country (the Unabomber, Love Story, David Gergen) came to us from Harvard but has now worked its insidious hooks into every crevice of society.
Time magazine recently declared Facebook more popular than porn. But who are they kidding? Facebook is porn. With porn, you watch other people take off their clothes and abase themselves in public. On Facebook, where there's technically an anti-nudity policy (thus defeating the whole purpose of the Internet), you get to figuratively do the same.
[T]he reason to hate Facebook is because of the stultifying mind-numbing inanity of it all, the sheer boredom. If Facebook helps put together streakers with voyeurs, the streakers, for the most part, after shedding their trench coats, seem to be running around not with taut and tanned hard-bodies, but in stained granny panties with dark socks. They have a reality-show star's unquenchable thirst for broadcasting all the details of their lives, no matter how unexceptional those details are. They do so in the steady, Chinese-water-torture drip of status updates. The very fact that they are on the air (or rather, on Facebook) has convinced them that every facet of their life must be inherently interesting enough to alert everyone to its importance.
(Our thanks to the always indispensable Arts & Letters Daily for the link.)