Famed (and perhaps the most famous) opera composer Richard Wagner started out as a political revolutionary. Really. Wagner’s stated aim was to destroy the established order and to transform established social relationships. (That’s why Wagner’s personal behavior often involved sexual betrayals.) Wagner himself wrote:
I will destroy each phantom that has rule o’er men. I will destroy the dominion of one over many, of the dead o’er the living, of matter over spirit; I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property.
— (Richard Wagner: “The Revolution.” Printed in Volksblätter No. 14, Dresden, Sunday April 8, 1849.)
Ironically enough, Wagner’s stunning success as a composer of music dramas was quite dependent upon the generosity of the newly rich (who craved the social prestige that came from being associated with a celebrated composer), and later, the patronage of the nobility. So much for overthrowing the established order—at least in the real world.
(NOTE: There’s a potentially non-work-safe painting after the jump — JB)
In the realm of art however, Wagner’s music was nothing other than “the continuation of political and social revolution by other means.” In his operas, Wagner gave free reign to his fascination with the “creative destruction” of institutions and societies. That’s why all of Europe reacted violently to the texts and subtexts of Wagner’s operas—some with abhorrence, some with horrified fascination, and many, especially young artists and composers, with a sense of wonder and of personal transformation.
Richard Wagner’s favorite “teachable moment” was the last possible instant before doomed grandeur falls into rubble. Wagner’s entire four-opera Ring cycle culminates in the fated destruction of Valhalla, the home of the Norse gods. In Wagner’s cosmology, the destruction of Valhalla is what makes way for the rise of humankind.
In 1845, Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser had its debut. Tannhäuser is Wagner’s reworking of a Medieval legend about the historical knight, composer, singer, and poet Tannhäuser, who supposedly discovered Venusberg, the underground (or mountaintop) home of the goddess Venus. In the myth, Tannhäuser spent a year in Venusberg, err, um, “worshipping” Venus.
Credit: Tannhäuser in the Venusberg by Hon. John Collier, English (1901).
However, after a year of erotic bliss, Tannhäuser longed to return to his earthly home. The Tannhäuser legend (like the Medieval legend of the Grateful Dead Man from which the famous rock band took its name) was doubtless a reworking of an older pagan legend.
In the Medieval version, Tannhäuser leaves Venusberg, repents of his sins, and travels to Rome to ask the Pope for forgiveness. The Pope scornfully tells Tannhäuser that forgiveness is no more likely than the Pope’s staff sprouting shoots and blossoming. Dejected, Tannhäuser departs to go home. Three days later, the Pope’s staff indeed does sprout. But by the time the messengers arrive, Tannhäuser has already returned to Venusberg, never to be seen again.
What Wagner added to the Tannhäuser story was dramatic tension between religious faith and human love, through the introduction of the character Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s virtuous prayers enable both Tannhäuser’s forgiveness and his not returning to Venusberg. Wagner also added a “Pilgrims’ Chorus” of pilgrims returning from Rome as the Act III news-bearers.
While Tannhäuser is on the surface a pious work, Wagner’s relationship with Christian culture was decidedly of the “Frenemy” sort. In its blurring of the distinctions between divine and human love, Tannhäuser could be Wagner’s first sketch for Tristan and Isolde.
So: Where does Detroit come in? Detroit comes in way back at: Richard Wagner’s favorite “teachable moment” was the last possible instant before doomed grandeur falls into rubble.
Courtesy of YouTube poster “Peppopb”, at the top of this article, we have an amazing mashup of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser with haunting black-and-white footage (from the Godfrey Reggio movie Naqoyqatsi) of Detroit’s ruined Michigan Central Station railroad terminal.
Michigan Central Station was built in 1913. It is in the same Beaux Arts style as, and by the same architects who designed, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. You can catch a train and even have a good meal in Grand Central, but Michigan Central is hardly safe to walk about in. (Not to forget that Detroit has entered Federal Bankruptcy protection from creditors.)
Two nearly-identical railroad stations, with two soberingly disparate outcomes.
While both labor and management in Detroit’s auto industry were addicted to short-term thinking and rent-seeking behaviors, a major reason for the differing outcomes is that New York has never been a one-industry town, while Detroit always was.
Richard Wagner’s strangely powerful religious music, itself the product of a life politically dedicated to destruction and artistically fascinated by downfall, is the perfect soundtrack for images of Detroit’s ruined Valhalla.
For your thoughtful consideration, I offer these take-aways:
• The Goddess Fortuna rules the world while wearing a blindfold.
• Nothing lasts forever.
• But great art often lasts a long time.
Record producer John Marks is a Senior Contributing Editor and columnist of Stereophile magazine.