Last weekend a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time stopped me on the street and asked me what the library was doing to commemorate the 200th birth year of Richard Wagner. The library has too many programs for me to keep track of, so I said, “I’ll get back to you on that.”
There is no question that Wagner is a towering figure in Western culture. He influenced later composers such as Claude Debussy, Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler. And his cultural impact extended beyond music: the works of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and writers ranging from Charles Baudelaire to D.H. Lawrence all owe something to Wagner.
But Wagner’s a controversial figure, to put it mildly. Like many Europeans of his day, Wagner was anti-semitic. And the Nazis loved him, seeing in his musical explorations of pagan myth the expression of a pure Germanic ethos. Some critics even argue that anti-semitic motifs are present in his operas, and Wagner’s own grandson thinks his music should be banned. Nevertheless his operas are among the high points of Western classical music. SPL has many of his operas on DVD, including Tristan und Isolde (one of the great love stories of Arthurian legend) and the incomparable Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. You can also read about Wagner and his family in the critically acclaimed Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family.
But however much Wagner’s operas are performed around the world, however much works such as The Waste Land or Ulysses have been influenced by the maestro, the real proof of the profundity of Wagner’s stamp on our culture is in what animators and critics agree is one of the best cartoons of all time. The team that created Bugs Bunny manages to riff on Tannhäuser, the Ring operas and The Flying Dutchman all in seven short minutes: