The road to Wagner

I have noticed that many students in top American schools were inclined towards the cultivation of music during their formative high school years — music was one of their essential extracurricular activities. I trained in vocal Indian classical music for years, but I lack the repertoire of any musical instrument, and I can't expeditiously read sheet music. I hold in esteem the mettle and proficiency exhibited by the adroit viola players, and I extend my unfeigned admiration to all the pianists and trumpet players at Duke.  

It is undeniably commendable how adeptly the United States' K-12 education system has assimilated musical pedagogy. However, my lamentation lies in the discernible extent to which classical music finds itself peculiarly compartmentalized. A considerable cohort of practitioners perceives classical music as an exclusive province of professional obligations, starkly divorced from its potential integration into the sphere of personal temporality, leisure pursuits and moments of repose. 

This observation, while not a sweeping generalization, is underscored by the conspicuous predilection of people who are virtuosic violinists yet prefer Billie Eilish over Rachmaninoff. Classical music is too often banished from the realm of individualized gratification. Individuals who do not have formal choral or quartet affiliations yet conscientiously, regularly listen to classical music remain an even rarer occurrence. Hence, connoisseurs of classical music are relegated to specialists or older generations. 

Paradoxically, the absence of a formal education in Western classical music has made me ardently appreciate the art form. In high school, I listened to a considerable corpus of classical compositions, with an inclination toward Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. However, it was not until my undergraduate years that I became a full aficionado.

I traversed through the ‘Sturm und Drang’ Mozart's Symphony No. 25, the opulence of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, and other orchestral masterpieces. Yet, it was in opera that I discovered the peak of my musical passion.  

Indeed, part of this is because of my training in vocal Indian classical music, hence a lot of rules and best practices regarding vocal enunciation carried over. I had my own indigenous lexicon, which I later realized meant the same as  Western terms such as staccatos and vibratos. I discovered solace in the resoundingly articulate intonation prevalent in operatic renditions, a stark departure from the prevailing sotto voce breathy timbre ubiquitous in contemporary female popular music. The traversal through the musical repertoire culminated in the identification of my favored opera composer — Richard Wagner. 

I maintain that were Richard Wagner alive in the 21st century, he would have deserved over Bob Dylan to be the first music composer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. While I readily acknowledge Mozart's comprehensive aptitude in musical composition and Puccini's composition of the most unforgettable arias, I do not believe Mozart ever ascended to the literary eminence achieved by Wagner. “Cosi fan tutte" was a pinnacle of vulgarity because of its portrayal of women, and even as someone who appreciates that Puccini is a staple of the New York Metropolitan Opera, Puccini cannot be absolved of unabashed sentimentalism. It is Wagner who, in my estimation, represents the apotheosis of musical expression.  

Upon revisiting the academic treatises on Wagner, the musical theory unfolded as intuitive, already-discovered deductions. I realized that an acutely discerning auditory faculty, even when not equipped with pre-existing annotations, bestows an innate cognizance of the salient facets embedded within the composition. Well in advance of my understanding of terms such as 'poco ritenuto' or the intricacies of chromaticism, I had organically formulated my own lexicon for my exclusive enlightenment, predicated upon empirical observations. The nomenclature found in Western musical textbooks emerged as a way more refined, sophisticated, and meticulously conceptualized iteration of the cognitive framework I had independently constructed. 

I have long considered the capacity to fervently sob to the prelude of ‘Tannhäuser’ as an indicator of virtuous moral character. This is particularly discernible in the stark dichotomy between the Repentance motif and the Bacchanal motif. Wagner's ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ has imparted to me more profound insights into the societal implications of technology than the works of Heidegger and Marcuse combined. Consider ‘Das Rheingold’, are silicon chips not the modern Rhinegold? Whoever forges the Rhinegold into a ring gains power over the world, but renounces love - do the electronic and computer industry not embody the same principles? 'Parsifal' has furnished me with a deeper comprehension of human sexuality and masculinity than any discourse by Foucault. Why is the modern quest for the Holy Spear and not the Holy Grail? 

Long before the advent of smartphones and ChatGPT, Wagner meditated on the inextricable tethering of our human essence to machineries and tools – without the Rhinegold or the Tarnknappe invisibility cloak, many of his characters would lead markedly benign existences, would they not? 

One of my favorite classes at Duke was in film theory — due to which I delved into the connections from Wagner to Mahler to Holst and then to Bernard Herrmann to John Williams to Hans Zimmer in the cinematic domain. Is the cinematic realm, with its amalgamation of visual and auditory elements, not the quintessential Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis into a transcendent whole? Are baritone horns the instrument of danger or is danger the emotion from baritone horns? 

‘Tannhäuser’, my favorite Wagnerian opera, is one of those rare artistic creations susceptible to diametrically opposing interpretations, with espousals of utterly antithetical moral implications - one can debate if Wagner is pronouncing a triumph of Christian over pagan ethics or advocating the subversion of traditional morality through free-spirited paganism. Personally, I incline toward the former explanation, the conviction that Wagner espouses the ascendancy of the sacred realm over its profane counterpart - making the character of Princess Elisabeth as poignant as the life story of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the symbolic emergence of shoots from the pope’s staff, thereby affording an alternative perspective, advocating for unrestrained affection and the cultivation of an idyllic ethos as the innate condition of humankind. Is this not romantic irony? 

The most intense junctures within Wagner's works are their own spiritual odysseys. Undoubtedly, the sacred realm has always had a pivotal role in classical music. Reflect upon the denouement of ‘Parsifal’, wherein the confluence of the Holy Spear and the Holy Grail occurs with the chorus of “Redemption to the Redeemer''! Reflect upon the conclusion to ‘Tannhäuser’, where the pronouncement “Salvation is granted to the penitent by grace; he now enters into blessed peace!” resounds, with an interplay of the Pilgrim and the Pulse of Life leitmotifs.  

What can ever match this?

Angikar Ghosal is a Trinity senior. His column typically runs on alternating Mondays.


Share and discuss “The road to Wagner” on social media.