Wagner in Seattle

I’ve just arrived in sunny (yes sunny!) Seattle, where I’ll be speaking at the Seattle Opera’s Wagner Symposium. The title of the talk is “Mark Twain: A Perfectly Average Wagnerite,” taking Twain’s report on his visit to Bayreuth in 1891 and his comments on Wagner in A Tramp Abroad as my main texts. Here’s a sample of what I’ll be saying:

There is no justification for calling Twain a secret Wagnerite, or a perfect Wagnerite, but he might be called a perfectly average Wagnerite, an intelligent, musically adept man who made a serious effort, over a substantial part of his life, to understand and enjoy Wagner’s music. His doubts reflect a classic paradox in the American character: He knew there are things we must learn to like, yet he found it ridiculous that pleasure should require work of any sort. Affectation and pretension horrified him, especially when it came to opera, which was loaded with class issues. The old Puritan in him respected the work of connoisseurship, but the Mississippi River pragmatist suspected any sin against commonsense, and worshipped simple pleasures like a religious dogma.

“What a poor lot we human beings are, anyway,” he wrote in 1878. “If base music gives me wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the higher music because the higher & better like it. But you see I want to like it without taking the necessary trouble & giving the whole thing the necessary amount of time & attention.”[1] Twain respected work, above almost all other things, and like many people who love work, he considered himself lazy. He liked to hear his daughter Clara “banging away on the piano,” she remembered in her biography of him. “Work is the darlingest recreation this world and whomsoever Nature has fitted to love it, is armed against care and sorrow.”[2] For a man who probably didn’t believe in any thing supernatural, who found little spiritual consolation during a life filled with personal loss, art was work and work was redemption.

If you’re in Seattle, come down to the symposium. Meanwhile, I’m going out to enjoy the brilliant day.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Music, Opera

2 responses to “Wagner in Seattle

  1. I wonder if Wagner would would have been able to appreciate Twain…somehow, it is difficult for me to imagine. Did he know of Twain? It would be an interesting imaginative exercise to write a story about the two of them having tea. The very thought of it is marvelously titillating.

  2. Pingback: Accessioning ephemera « Philip Kennicott

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