Spiked asks: "Wagner or Verdi?"

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Niccolo and Donkey
Taste in opera: a window to the soul

Spiked Online

Patrick West

February 1, 2013

There’s a theory that if you prefer The Beatles to the Rolling Stones, you’re more likely to prefer Tintin to Asterix, and cats to dogs. Likewise, fans of the Stones will be more partial to Asterix and dogs. The theory works on the premise that serious and geeky people are drawn to types of music, literature and pets that reflect their own character, and that the same goes for confident, fun-loving simpletons.

I like the theory. Anecdotal research shows that it holds true (I fit squarely into the first category). Yet I think a fourth test could be added: whether you are inclined towards Richard Wagner or Giuseppe Verdi - the dark and apocalyptic Teuton versus the lyrical and bombastic Latin. It doesn’t take a genius to figure into which category each belongs.

This year is the bicentenary of both composers’ birth, and the convergence has already generated harsh words. Daniel Barenboim’s decision to open La Scala’s season with his beloved Wagner caused understandable consternation. ‘This choice is a smack for Italian art, a blow for national pride in a moment of harsh crisis’, declared one commentator in Milan’s daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera . Italy’s economic subservience to Germany is bad enough without having to celebrate German culture, too.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear critics of the Euro invoking the pair, epitomising the contrast between cerebral northern Europeans and the hot-tempered Mediterraneans. The Euro crisis has already spawned a lot of rusty old rhetoric about character differences between northern and southern Europeans, a dichotomy that scholars of Matthew Arnold or Edward Said would recognise. Leipzig Opera’s director of productions, Peter Konwitschny, recently remarked of Wagner and Verdi, ‘the German thinks with music, the Italian sings with it’. Thus, the two are divisive figures not for nakedly chauvinistic reasons, but for two different mindsets often allied to national stereotypes. The pairing of the two prompts us to ask a fundamental question: should music be foremost intelligent or pleasing?

Wagner saw his music as primarily intellectual, and thought seriously about what his art represented. He wrote of gods and heroes. He wanted (his) music to be the new religion purged of Christian dogma and doctrine. The operas Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are influenced by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and Wagner was initially worshipped by a young Friedrich Nietzsche. Heroic works such as Der Ring des Nibelungen , Tristan and The Flying Dutchman portray triumph often through death, as Wagner declared contempt for ‘the happy ending, an intolerably banal prospect’.

‘He understood the modern world and its spiritual anguish, and provided modern people with the mythical narrative in which they could come to consciousness of their predicament’, observes Roger Scruton: ‘Verdi could not conceivably have composed a masterpiece like The Valkyrie , in which a profound metaphysical idea is made concrete, haunting and believable.’ David Pountney, the artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, says ‘Verdi composed the drama of melody, melodrama, contrast. Wagner, that of ideas and transformation.’

Verdi was happy with protagonists with imperfections - the hunchback in Rigoletto , the self-serving old knight in Falstaff , and the jealous princess Amneris in Aïda - and flawed human beings who sought connectedness. His melodies are soothing or joyous. La Traviata therefore became the music to the film Pretty Woman , ‘The Triumphant March’ from Aïda was adopted by Dutch football supporters, while the overture from La Forza del Destino - thanks to an old TV advert - evokes bucolic images of drinking lager in the sunshine. By contrast, Die Walküre is the music of Apocalypse Now .

In Verdi And/Or Wagner (2011), Peter Conrad observes that ‘Hollywood… adheres to the customary division between the two composers: Wagner is a terrorist, Verdi a therapist’. The Italian saw art as a comfort for the human spirit. The German revolutionary wanted his music to drive people crazy and burn down Paris.

Although Wagner was ‘an absolute shit’, as WH Auden concluded, he evidently captivated a certain generation and gothic mindset. Only a composer with Wagner’s exceptional ‘capacity to engross our time and take over our lives’, writes Conrad, could thus get away with operas that last 16 hours. (‘The Teutonic reputation for brutality is well-founded. Their operas last three or four days’, observed Edmund in the First World War sitcom, Blackadder Goes Forth .) Today’s youngsters dressed in black listen to groups with umlauts in their names; their predecessors listened to operas with umlauts in their titles.

Conrad implies that we need Verdi to temper our inner Wagner, to embrace ‘the virtue of charity or caritas as opposed to the rage of the egotistical will, a need for human connection as opposed to the mind’s proud solitude’. This is what makes me uneasy about Wagner, especially his obsessive fans such as Stephen Fry and Adolf Hitler.

There remains something irredeemably teenage and ‘emo’ about Wagner, with his adolescent belief that there is something glorious and romantic about death. There’s enough self-pity and death worship in modern society as it is. The spate of public figures boasting their wish to be euthanised is but the most recent example. There’s a surplus of self-important anger in the Twittersphere. There’s too much emphasis on ‘meaning’ in the art world, in that works ‘pose difficult questions’ and ‘raise important issues’ at the expense of producing something pleasing for its own sake. Clichés about ‘relevance’ and ‘meaning’ are invariably a defence against well-founded charges of mediocrity and narcissism.

In his 1968 essay ‘The Naivete of Verdi’, Isaiah Berlin favourably contrasted the Italian’s work to Wagner’s as a ‘symptom of sanity’, with Verdi an un-selfconscious, natural genius in the mould of Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe. Verdi may not have had his contemporary’s intensity, but he was more popular and prodigious, and his tunes are rightly more widely performed today than Wagner’s. As Rodney Milnes, former editor of Opera Magazine put it: ‘Verdi says as much as Wagner about the impossibility of power and love, but in a quarter of the time and with real tunes.’

Therefore, I would opt for Verdi’s rumpty-tumpty melodies over Wagner’s introspection-and-incest combo. This, unfortunately, also happens to leave my opening theory buggered.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here .
Niccolo and Donkey
Bronze Age Pervert

Not a fan of opera; its origins are not musical, and often the melody is lost and degenerates into boring speech and even yelling. I've never had a taste for it, I prefer "pure music" ...music without the human voice, embodied in the form of the symphony. That's what people usually call "cerebral" music, although it's wrong even in that sense...anyone who listens to music, or looks at art, for a purely intellectual experience, is retard. Real art doesn't reveal truth through some extraneous content in which you have to think about things rationally in a stream of syllogisms, it reveals something concrete directly to the perception, an idea...

The writer of the article is an ignorant cunt. People weren't listening to Wagner for the intellectual content or for philosophical enlightenment; people were describing his music as a drug. The Wagnerian festivals were Dionysian rock-shows; if people also thought about his philosophical or political programme, that was because he had already seduced them with his music. Wagner's music can take you to heights of terror and power! And he is best, actually, in intimate moments, as Nietzsche says--and Nietzsche is criticizing him for abandoning this specialty. If you want to read a criticism of Wagner that is not written by an ignorant cunt, read Nietzsche's Case of Wagner.

Schopenhauer himself, on receiving a copy of the Ring, said that Wagner had more genius as a poet than a musician; but, then again, Schopenhauer was not a fan of opera in general. Wagner's Schopenhauerian turn came later in his career; the article above obscures this, Wagner's Schopenhauerian work is actually an embrace of a kind of Christianity; it's one of the reasons Nietzsche became disgusted with Wagner, particularly the character of Parsifal, who was a betrayal of what Siegfried stood for. This cunt in the article misses that, but, then again, he misses everything.

Especially dumb is the comparison of Italian with German art. Actually I stand on the side of Med art and Italian art and thought, but not in the sense above. As Strauss said, Machiavelli is the Italian master with the fine hand, the criminal mastermind; Hobbes is English workhorse who elaborates (Nietzsche called him Bacon's secretary). In general this comparison holds for many arts; compared to Italian painting of the Renaissance, Paglia mentions that German Renaissance painting seems labored, and I agree. It's the same with a lot of music; you can say Bach for example improves some famous pieces by Vivaldi, or that he labors them. Anyway, in the case of Wagner I don't think this holds anymore--although Nietzsche turned to Bizet, and Schopenhauer before him thought Rossini was the best. German geniuses in general turned to the Med for inspiration, but anyway, what this article says is stupid, and it's cribbed from that thing about Elvis people vs. Beatles people (Elvis is superior).


It's pretty strange to think of Verdi's music in that way, but okay.

Like BAP I have reservations about the singing - and sometimes the acting, when it turns into "park and bark." I've seen more Verdi than I have Wagner, and probably prefer the Italian if only because after 3 1/2 or more hours in the theatre a little froth is necessary to get you through. Put me down for simpleton.

Niccolo and Donkey

I'd have to second that opera doesn't appeal to me personally. It just seems like a clunky, ridiculous artform, butchering both music and on-stage drama. I've never listened to any opera all the way through, so I'm not fully equipped to judge, but when I hear opera, the rhythm and meaning of the words are totally lost. Having a drama sung opera style is like having a guarantee of bad acting in a play.

The pieces of Wagner that I like are all evocative in a more abstract sense.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/3nhcTllJgIY

This for instance, doesn't make me think of a singing contest. Instead it seems like an intoxicating pagan victory parade, something much more powerful and, to me, perverse. Wagner at his strongest rises far above soap opera antics, but even at it's most beautiful, the subject matter is spiritually shallow at best, dead at worst.


I'm a cat person by nature. I liked Tintin but loved Asterix. I hate the Beatles 'concept' and 'Beatlemania' makes me want to punch people in the face. But they have far more good songs than the Stones.

Opera? I've never really given it a chance.

Sam Spade

From a strictly musical perspective, Wagner was one of the great musical innovators of all time, up there with Machaut and Monteverdi, as the musical techniques he developed have influenced everyone since, not just in the art music world (the leitmotiv concept and the elimination of standard tonal phrase foremost). The last operas of Verdi (Otello and Falstaff) borrow heavily from Wagnerian techniques, btw, he knew how important these things were. Of course, the innovators were not necessarily the greatest composers (nor were the greatest composers the greatest innovators - Bach and Mozart for example, were not really innovative, per se, they synthesized styles to create their own specific musical language).

Of the two composers, in my opinion, Wagner wrote the best single work - Tristan, but overall Verdi's quality is better, and Otello is better than any other Wagner opera than Tristan. I find the Ring stale - the leitmotivs are used in a repetitive fashion - contrast that to Tristan, where they are alive and ever-changing. Meistersinger and Parsifal are ok, the earlier operas have their moments, but overall are not as good as a lot of Verdi's earlier work (Rigoletto has so many great tunes, Il Trovatore has great drama, and La Traviata, if a bit ridiculous, is great fun every time I've seen it).

I think that's a good enough non-answer.

Here's the point where the journalist completes his 'glib pop culture reference' quota. It just wouldn't be a 21st century periodical without some Millenial faggot (or aging, cynical Gen X hipster ala Gavin McInnes) comparing the composer of The Ring of the Nibelungen to a depressed teenager with a Twitter account. Nevermind that he's completely wrong; that our society is terrified of death, and that euthanasia is the opposite of 'romantic'. The real reason the author dislikes Wagner? My guess is that Wagner's introspection repulses him -- generally vapid 'creatives' do not like to remain alone with themselves for too long, lest they suddenly realize what utter pieces of shit they are.