Music history, art mystery: Wagner’s anomaly

Richard Wagner, 19th-century German opera composer, strived to combine all of the arts in his operas, to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”). Since opera included components such as narrative, sets, costumes and acting, he saw it as an opportunity to complement music with literature, the visual arts and theater. It is no surprise, then, that Lydia Goehr, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, could fashion an entire thesis around one reference to a painting in Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in last Wednesday’s lecture, entitled “Beckmesser’s Lute; King David’s Harp: Musical Instruments and the Instrumentality of Painting.”

The lecture presented a mystery story generated from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger in which the character Eva describes her love, Walther, as looking like a painting of David by Dürer. The mystery lies in the fact that such a painting does not exist, and Goehr sought to explain why it is even mentioned.

Goehr’s argument involved several seemingly disparate components, which made it hard to see the connections until the very end. Even she needed a script to keep her lecture together, which was surprising but understandable considering the complexity of her ideas.

One of Goehr’s central points was that Wagner saw Die Meistersinger as an argument for the validity of his vision of a new art, the Gesamtkunstwerk. In order to achieve his goal, he blurred the lines between myth and history. Operas typically portrayed mythical stories because the fantasy of the narrative matched the unrealistic quality of the staged production. Wagner certainly drew on myth to write his narratives, but also incorporated elements of history and his own imagination. By combining several different ideas, he believed he was creating a higher art form out of the previous versions of opera.

Die Meistersinger serves as an example of this blurring of myth and history in its connections to the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. Both the opera and the myth feature a musical contest. In Die Meistersinger, Walther and Beckmesser compete in a song contest held by the Nuremberg Mastersinger guild to win the hand of Eva in marriage, whereas in the myth, Marsyas challenges Apollo to a musical face-off. When Apollo wins, Marsyas is flayed alive as punishment for his hubris.

Goehr emphasized hubris as a linking theme between the myth and Wagner’s creativity. Marsyas was punished for his “socially destructive” hubris; in ancient Greece, citizens were punished for hubris with exile because it challenged the structure of social hierarchy. However, the ancient Greeks held frequent contests in the arts to foster a new generation of artistic works. Similarly, Wagner saw hubris as a means towards creativity. He renovated the conventions of his genre, produced by the Italians and French since the Renaissance, to create a modern and distinctly German form of artistic expression.

One such convention that Wagner wanted to revolutionize was the attachment of instruments as props to opera singers. Goehr pointed out Beckmesser as an example of Wagner’s process of deinstrumentalization. Beckmesser is the only character who plays an instrument, and he not only loses the contest but gets beaten for his incompetent serenading of Eva. Wagner removes instruments from his characters, rendering them as pure singers.

Finally returning to the Dürer image, Goehr stressed the blurring of myth and history with the reference to a nonexistent image. While Dürer is a real historical figure, the painting is a figment of Wagner’s imagination. David himself is a mythical figure that has associations in Dürer’s art with other mythical heroes, such as Adam and Apollo. Wagner used Die Meistersinger as his argument for a new art, and the nonexistent image symbolizes his combination of myth, history and modernity to create something new.

However, Goehr then debunked her entire thesis with the presentation of a Goethe poem on Hans Sachs, one of the characters in Wagner’s opera and also a real historical figure. After researching the nonexistent Dürer image, Goehr searched for references to Dürer in other art forms. She found that Goethe’s poem included the same themes as Die Meistersinger and thus must have formed the basis of the opera.

Additionally, the poem mentions Dürer in one line that is almost identical to Wagner’s reference; Goethe writes, “as seen by Dürer,” whereas Wagner writes, “as painted by Dürer.” Goehr believes that Wagner made this change only to create a rhyme, not to refer to an actual painting.

After being dragged through a rollercoaster ride of evidence, it was deflating to discover that her thesis was nullified by Goethe’s poem. No doubt the discovery was more disappointing for Goehr, who spent years of research on the topic. One is left to speculate whether all such literary analysis is merely a series of fabricated coincidences or if her initial research retains its value for the different perspectives it reveals on Wagner’s work. Either way, Goehr presented a fascinating, if sometimes disorienting, mystery story stretching from ancient Greece to 16th-century Nuremberg to the end of the 19th century’s birth of modern art.