The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.
The conflict between Brahms and his posse, and Wagner and his, resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:
The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.
Wagner was outraged by this screed, and branded its authors “Jews,” one of his favorite epithets.
A few days later, an answer appeared in the NeueZeitschrift:
Dread Mr. Editor,
All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,
Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]
In spite of this mocking response, the anxiety over who would inherit the mantle of Beethoven caused real anxiety among culture-minded Germans; David Thatcher goes so far as to call the Absolute vs. Program Music dispute a “civil war”; indeed, it’s even been called “The War of the Romantics.” Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven, and to carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. As conductor Russell Ger puts it:
From our perspective it seems fantastically overblown. Could people really get that worked up about something like this? Well, unfortunately we have a tragic parallel in the two great rap artists Biggie and 2Pac. The feud between these musicians resulted in two gang-related homicides, with both men being cut down in their prime. This is equally beyond comprehension.
In the 19th Century, the conflict was somewhat more restrained, with only occasional outbursts of physical violence at concerts. The war was predominantly restricted to vociferous condemnations in print and vocal denunciations at performances.
Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Liszt was a great supporter of Wagner; his daughter Cosima became Wagner’s second wife. Wagner, in turn, hated Brahms and everything he believed Brahms stood for. As Wagner’s defender, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, put it:
What does Johannes Brahms matter now? His good fortune was a German misunderstanding: he was taken for Wagner’s antagonist — an antagonist was needed. That does not make for necessary music, that makes, above all, for too much music.-If one is not rich one should have pride enough for poverty. The sympathy Brahms inspires undeniably at certain points . . . long seemed enigmatic to me — until finally I discovered, almost by accident, that he affects a certain type of man. His is the melancholy of impotence; he does not create out of an abundance, he languishes for abundance. If we discount what he imitates [e.g., Beethoven], what he borrows from great old or exotic-modern styles — he is a master of imitation — what remains as specifically his is yearning. This is felt by all who are full of yearning and dissatisfaction of any kind. He is too little a person . . . This is understood by those . . . on the periphery [of socity] and they love him for that. In particular, he is the musician for a certain type of dissatisfied women . . . . Brahms is touching as long as he is secretly enraptured or mourns for himself — in this he is “modern”; he becomes cold and of no further concern to us as soon as he becomes the heir of the classical composers. People like to call Brahms the heir of Beethoven: I know no more cautious euphemism.
In brief, Nietzsche says that Brahms is impotent, small-minded, with no original ideas, and appeals only to people with frustrated lives. Do you agree?
Whatever the case, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.
The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):
The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.
More on the Tristan chord:
Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.
A hobgoblin is, in European folklore, a spirit of the hearth or fireside (the “hob”). Hobgoblins are considered meddlesome and mischievous beings.
In the universe of Marvel Comics, the Hobgoblin is one of Spiderman’s nemeses.
In his well-known 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” by which he meant that one should not conform to the fashion of the age, but should rather be original in all that one thinks and does from one day to the next.
In fact, it was Wagner who, in 1846, first coined the term “absolute music.” He meant it in the most pejorative way possible, calling music that was disengaged from the meanings and energies of daily life, history, and the imagination “a hobgoblin in the brain of our aesthetic critics.” Indeed, according to Mark Evan Bonds, Wagner believed that
The notion of an artwork unconnected to the world around it . . . was quite literally inconceivable.
In other words, to Wagner, music could never be abstract, referring only to itself, existing in a realm untouched, unaffected, and unadulterated by any gesture or fact outside of itself.
In matters of absolute vs. program music, Wagner’s nemesis would be not The Hobgoblin, but Brahms.
[Content warning for disturbing, racist, and violent film imagery.]
As we’ve discussed, the way that music and image interact can change, enhance, or even contradict the meaning of both the music and of the image.
We are all familiar with the ability of image to define, revise, and re-write not only past history, but even the present moment. One of the earliest examples of visual culture in the service of cultural revisionism is the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras with the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys. The Birth of a Nation was considered controversial even at the time of its release. It presented destructive and tired racist tropes about African-Americans — most of whom were played in the film by white actors in blackface — and portrayed the Klan as a patriotic and heroic force for good.
In spite of its objectionable content, the film itself is considered groundbreaking for the innovative dramatic and visual techniques used by its director, D.W. Griffiths. Equally innovative was its score. Silent films were accompanied by pianists or organists who were hired by movie theaters, and the film score for Birth of a Nation, in a piano reduction, was sent to every theater that screened the film so that the theater musicians could play along, aligning the music with cues in the score. The film’s composer, Joseph Carl Breil, wrote original music, as well as making arrangements of popular songs and Civil War-era ballads and using excerpts of works by Beethoven and Wagner, including the Ride of the Valkyries (in a scene that portrays the KKK as a liberating force). Breil and Griffiths wanted the music to underscore and enhance the dramatic force of such scenes and to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Inspired by this innovative use of music to enhance the emotional charge of a visual narrative, Francis Ford Coppola also used “Ride of the Valkyries” in his 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, in a scene in which U.S. Army helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village.
(And of course, you’ve seen this.)
Since the early 2000s, composer, multimedia artist, and turntablist DJ Spooky has been performing his own version of Birth of a Nation, entitled Rebirth of a Nation. Spooky calls Breil’s original score “an early, pivotal accomplishment in remix culture” for its use of both original and received music. In his remixed version, Spooky has manipulated the film, shuffling scenes and adding new visual footage, and has also contributed a new score.
You can watch a live performance of Rebirth here.
Do you think that DJ Spooky’s visual and sonic remix changes the meaning of D.W. Griffith’s film?
This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.
Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:
Some cried foul. One Facebook commenter noted:
“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I’m a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain’t Latina.”
Choffel was defended, on the other hand, by Rachel V. González-Martin, a professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who
To put it in a certain context: this is one of the best-known songs by Flaco Jiménez, a Texas-born singer and accordionist, like Selena a master of the Tejano style.
Every year on his birthday, these two white Dutch guys make a video of themselves covering it as a tribute to Jiménez. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it cultural appreciation?
What about the Japanese group Orquesta de la Luz, considered one of the best salsa bands in the world in the 1980s and 1990s?
Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.
Professor González-Martin’s idea that once culture is out there, it’s out there, is not true just for the cultural expressions of historically-oppressed or underresourced groups. In recent years, for instance, Richard Wagner’s operas have been adopted as required listening by American white supremacists who probably never took Music 101. (If they had taken it with me, I like to think, they might have emerged with a little more love for their fellow man.)
Someone else used Wagner’s music as a sonic pun in an endless loop of alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer getting punched at Trump’s inauguration:
In 2019, the ensemble Roomful of Teeth was criticized by Inuit women on Twitter for incorporating Inuit throat-singing practices, uncredited, into one of their pieces, “Partita for 8 Voices,” by award-winning composer Caroline Shaw:
Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices”; the movement with the throat-singing begins at 10:18:
As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:
As you will recall, Robert Schumann founded and edited the influential music magazine Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
In 1850, the Neue Zeitschrift published an essay by a pseudonymous author called “Das Judentum in der Music” (Jewishness in Music), which alleged that Jews, being not only culturally and religiously different, but also biologically — that is, racially — different from gentile Germans, could not contribute to German musical traditions, but only corrupt and dilute them. Furthermore, the author stated, Jews could never fully participate in German society, no matter how many generations their ancestors had been Germans, because of this difference (the full text in English translation can be found here.)
It should be noted that by 1850, Robert Schumann was no longer editing the Neue Zeitschrift.
Ten years later, the author of this vicious essay was revealed to be Richard Wagner.
Some fifty years after Wagner’s death, Hitler supposedly said, “There is only one legitimate predecessor to National Socialism [Nazism]: Wagner.” Hitler frequently used Wagner’s music at Nazi rallies. In the movie The Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda documentary about Hitler’s notorious 1934 Nüremberg Rally, the opening credits are set to a military band playing the “Nibelungen March,” an arrangement of several themes from the Ring Cycle.
Hitler at Bayreuth:
Because of Hitler’s appropriation of Wagner’s music — and Wagner’s own virulent anti-Semitism — there has long been an unofficial ban on performances of his music in Israel. Nevertheless, in recent years, some Israeli musicians have tried to circumvent and defy this ban.
Larry David, in a 2001 episode of his hilarious show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is reprimanded by a stranger for being a “self-loathing Jew” when he’s overheard whistling Wagner.
A Nazi propaganda film of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler conducing the Berlin Philharmonic in the overture to Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for an audience of factory workers in 1942.
Furtwängler, incidentally, was a complicated and controversial figure. While many German musicians, artists, and intellectuals went into exile as a protest against the Nazis, Furtwängler remained. After the war, he was accused of being a Nazi himself, though he never joined the Nazi party, and in fact he had helped many Jewish musicians to escape from Germany. He was tried by the Allies after the war, and defended himself at his trial by saying:
I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does [German novelist] Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.
In our own time, the mass shooter Dylann Roof, who massacred 9 Black churchgoers in an attempt to instigate a “race war” in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently on death row, is said to have gone to his car to listen to Wagner on the radio while he waited to be arrested.
What do you think? Can we separate the art from the man? Should we? Once the music has been written and released into the world, to whom does it belong?
The legend of Dr. Faust — a scholar dissatisfied with his life, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for renewed youth, strength, and vigor — is an ancient one. The first literary adaptations of the Faust legend began to appear in the sixteenth century, and every age since has reinterpreted the story according to its own cultural ethos.
The great poet of German classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), wrote his own version of the Faust legend as a play in rhymed verse in two parts, the first part appearing in 1808, the second published after his death. It provided the basis for many musical works in the nineteenth century, including Schubert’s great song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), which Schubert (above) wrote when he was only seventeen, thus changing the course of music forever.
Gretchen is a young peasant girl who has fallen in love with the new, improved version of Faust. She waits for him to come as she spins wool on her spinning wheel.
As she spins, her thoughts take a more and more obsessive turn. She fantasizes about Faust: his noble good looks, the enchanting flow of his conversation, and his kiss — at which point she is so overcome that the constant motion of her spinning wheel, represented by Schubert in the right hand of the piano part, stops for a moment while Gretchen calms herself and gathers her wits. Then she picks up the motion of the wheel again.
At the age of seventeen, Schubert was able to enter into the inner life of his protagonist and write what is almost a miniature opera, but for only two players: the piano and the voice. The song, with the piano mimicking the outer world and the voice showing the interior life of the character, revolutionized music.