The philosopher Bernard Williams brought to his writings on opera a rare vigour and intelligence—although Vernon Bogdanor disagrees with his interpretation of Wagnerby / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
On Opera by Bernard Williams
(Yale University Press, £19.99)
Listening many years ago to The Marriage of Figaro and Pelléas and Mélisande on Radio 3, I found the operas illuminated by interval talks given by the philosopher, Bernard Williams. The talks were short, about 20 minutes, and yet of a depth that is rare even in scholarly tomes on opera. Although barely acquainted with Bernard, I begged him to bring his scattered writings on the subject together into a book. He smiled appreciatively and said he would think about it. In the preface to this volume, his widow, Patricia, says that he was working on it when diagnosed with cancer. He then decided to use his remaining energies to complete his final philosophical work, Truth and Truthfulness (2002). He died in 2003, but Patricia has put all opera-lovers in her debt by preparing this book of essays.
Reading On Opera, I was gratified to realise that my impression of profundity all those years ago was not misplaced. This is one of the best books on the subject since Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, published in 1956. It has also been beautifully produced by Yale—to a standard which, alas, is all too rare in the productions of our own university publishing houses.
Williams, like Kerman, is interested in how composers achieve dramatic ends through music. His main concern is the means by which music reinforces drama, or in some cases (as in Rigoletto) undermines it. He wants to explore what Michael Tanner, in a perceptive introduction, calls “the human truth” of opera. The book is at its best in its analysis of Mozart’s Italian comedies—Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. Williams illustrates both their psychological penetration and their ultimately problematic nature, and in doing so overturns many of our conventional attitudes towards them.
Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, are often said to have turned Figaro into a politically castrated version of Beaumarchais’s radical play, transforming it into “a masterpiece of sentiment.” On the contrary, Williams insists, it is Mozart and not Beaumarchais who displays, in the character of Count Almaviva, “the interpenetration of social power and sexual relations.” In the play, Almaviva is unfaithful from boredom. In the opera, his unfaithfulness is associated with divisions of rank. The opera “shows how rank can itself generate rage and loneliness, while lack of it can leave room for a greater openness.”
Don Giovanni has been seen, by Kierkegaard among others, as an existentialist hero, a symbol of a romantic ideal. But that, says Williams, was not Mozart’s conception. There is no implication in the opera that the Don is claiming a freedom which ought to be available to all. “Such solemnities,” Williams finds, “do not belong to Giovanni,” who is essentially non-reflective and “dependent, dialectically, on social institutions which he rejects—wealth and the liberty given by class.” Almaviva, like Giovanni, is sexually promiscuous, but the count remains part of the social order, while Giovanni is essentially a brigand. Thus, Giovanni’s punishment at the end comes as “a natural consequence, rather than a transcendental judgment.”
Così fan tutte is the most puzzling opera of all. As Williams says, “Nearly every critic who has taken Così seriously has found something unsatisfactory about it,” for the music “puts a weight on the plot which its farcical artificiality cannot sustain.” The music of the second act, in which Ferrando and Gugliemo appear in disguise to test their fiancées’ fidelity, has a depth which the plot appears to contradict when, in the final act, it returns the original pairs of lovers to each other.
The very title—which means “that is what they all do”—implies a superficiality which the music denies. Yet Williams finds Così to be “a deep and unsettling masterpiece.” What makes it unsettling is the fact that the world will go on as though the emotions were merely superficial, “and the social order, which looks to things other than those emotional forces, will win out… Perhaps it may even be hinted that it is better that the world and its arrangements turn their back on that kind and depth of feeling.”
Williams’s touch is less sure, I think, in his understanding of Wagner. He seeks to answer the question of why it is that we find Wagner’s music so uniquely disturbing. Part of the problem, of course, is its overwhelming nature, especially in The Ring and Tristan und Isolde. “My objections to Wagner’s music,” Nietzsche declared, “are physiological objections. What is the point of dressing them up in aesthetic formulae?” But is there nothing more to it than that? The fact that Wagner’s views were politically disturbing does not, of course, mean that his works need necessarily be politically disturbing. After all, as Williams points out, Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina is not disturbing as Wagner’s music is, even though Pfitzner was required to undergo denazification after the war. We can, in Pfitzner’s case, make a distinction between “the work” and “the man.” This seems harder to do with Wagner.
Williams rightly rejects the idea, championed first by Theodor Adorno and then by Robert Gutman in his book Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind and His Music (1968), that Wagner’s villains—Klingsor, Mime, Beckmesser—are intended to be Jewish; and indeed, it is surely the case that a man who was so strongly antisemitic would have made some reference, if only in private letters, to the Jewishness of these characters, if that is what they were intended to be. In any case, Williams considers the sort of approach which looks for coded antisemitic messages in the operas to be incapable of dealing with “any deep anxieties caused by Wagner’s works.” In fact, such an approach “serves to reconcile these writers’ admiration for them with their bad conscience about his attitudes, but at a painless and superficial level. They have externalised the problem, moving it from where it truly belongs.”
Where does it truly belong? For Williams, the essence of the Wagner problem is political—or rather, it stems from the transcendence of the political in his work. Parts of The Ring, and in particular Siegfried’s funeral music in Götterdämmerung, suggest that “perhaps there could be a world in which a politics of pure heroic action might succeed… a redemptive, transforming politics which transcended the political.” Politics for Wagner was, Williams believes, messy, divisive and superficial, something to be overcome in a higher unity, for which there were two main candidates, “art and the nation, or indeed, the two together.” That of course has been a common theme in modern German history. There was, it was argued, a special German path, a Sonderweg, which would transcend politics, an idea put forward by Thomas Mann in his 1918 work Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man). Mann contrasted Kultur, which was German and deep, with Zivilisation, which was French and superficial. He later recanted these ideas and became an opponent of Nazism. Nevertheless, the idea that politics can be transcended is, Williams believes, one to which Wagner adhered, and it is one of the ideological factors that made Nazism possible.
But I can find no warrant for believing that Wagner, fervent nationalist though he was, expresses such a view in his operas, and Williams gives us no reason to believe it. Indeed, the idea that Wagner is suggesting a political ideal of any sort in his later operas—Götterdämmerung, Meistersinger, Tristan and Parsifal—is a misreading of his basic aesthetic. What he got from Schopenhauer, after all, was not just a view of the primacy of music in expressing the essence of the world, but a sense of the futility of all worldly action. Wagner’s later operas reflect “the sublime tragedy of renunciation”: a sense that evil is not the result of bad political arrangements, or evil people—Wotan or Klingsor—but is inevitable.
Nietzsche, admittedly, argued that Meister-singer had political implications, that it is, in Williams’s words, “against Zivilisation, German against French”; and there is indeed a rather embarrassing encomium to German art at the end of the opera, put in at the insistence of Cosima, Wagner’s wife. Yet it is the superiority of German art, not politics, that is being celebrated; and it is worth remembering that Meistersinger was completed in 1867, just one year after Bismarck’s war with Austria, when German unity was by no means yet completed. Williams accepts that although “Wagner gets Sachss to declare the ideals of artistic nationalism, he is careful not to commit himself to what its political implications might be.” This, Williams adds, “might be called the avoidance of politics.” But the avoidance of politics is not the same as the transcendence of politics, which Hitler’s Nazi movement sought to achieve.
In his introduction to On Opera, Michael Tanner says that, as with all of Williams’s work, this book is “an invitation to argue.” Williams would certainly have wanted to argue vigorously in defence of his view of Wagner. It is a great sadness that he can no longer do so. This collection, however, stands as a worthy memorial to his view of philosophy as a discipline whose central concern is with the ultimate truths about the way we are to live our lives.