The Triumph of the Will to Intuition. . .

Michael Morse

 A grimly grand example of political musicology (and musicianship): overhearing the profound connections between Wagner and Mendelssohn. Listening to Midsummer Night’s Dream, it should impossible to miss the resemblances to a score of Wagnerian scores, not only in the flickering textures of the opening (which become the “Forest Murmurs” in Siegfried) and the chorale‑like passages which set the stage for Tannhäuser, but more profoundly still in the movement from idea to idea. The art of infinite transition that Wagner rightly praised in himself was learned from Mendelssohn far more directly than from Beethoven or Weber. Is this art or conception of transition “Jewish” or “German”? It belongs to a German tradition of music, true enough—but further refinements along “racial” lines of what “German” means are not just ugly but plain wrong.

The egregious self‑deception that Mendelssohn’s music is substantively (i.e., racially) different from Wagner’s does not make itself audible in performance, however. There is no easy way, and perhaps no way at all, to tell from performances of either composer who does or does not subscribe to this counter‑intuitive idiocy. But that is precisely because the connections are so close. The musicalskills of a good Wagner performance and a good Mendelssohn performance are so intimately intertwined that the constitutive moments cannot be pulled apart. Those who pretend that they can are deluding themselves, listening to their own political attitudes and not music.

(Next time: how differently gendered is Clara Schumann’s music from her husband’s, and her young North German friend’s?)


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to The Triumph of the Will to Intuition. . .

  1. jonathan says:

    I read someplace, years ago, that even in his febrile anti-Semitism Wagner would brook no criticism of the Hebrides overture, which he admired for its “beginning without a beginning.” For me, the most pathetic demonstration of Wagner’s Mendelssohn obsession was the note in Cosima’s diary that he awoke one morning from a dream in which, he informed his wife, he saw Mendelssohn (long dead by that point) and addressed him with the “du” form. That’s showing ’em!
    If there is really a gendering argument in the Clara-Robert-Johannes triumvirate, one might begin with the songs. I’m not sure–giving the argument the benefit of the doubt, which may not be wise–that our tools for discerning gendering, even if such a thing does exist, are anywhere near what they would need to be.

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    Perhaps if Wagner had kept his racist opinions to himself, people “might not have known” that Mendelssohn or Meyerbeer were Jewish (it all smacks of jealousy on Wagner’s part anyhow, not unlike his admirer Hitler).
    But how much did the Nazi’s know, idiots that they were? There are performances of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in Germany as late as 1937.
    But, no thanks to the Nazi’s, original Mendelssohn scores are scattered throughout the world (in fairness to protect them from destruction), and as a lingering after-effect, we still have a biased opinion of Mendelssohn as a conservative, even second-rate, composer, one that was NOT shared by the music world before 1933.

  3. MW Morse says:

    to David: Ah, but the Nazis had a way to rationalize their inability to tell the difference between an Aryan and a Jewish composer/conductor/violinist/singer/streetcar conductor: when the “non-Aryan” fooled the stout Teuton, it was proof of the diabolical cleverness of their mimicry, and further proof that they’re a slippery, tricky lot! (“Never get in a pee fight with a skunk,” my father always observes..)
    to Jon: Around the same time as that dream, he made a mistake in the transposition of a trombone passage in Parsifal, and told Cosima that “Mendelssohn would never have made a mistake like that.” Incredibly, unimaginably mixed, screed-up feelings at work here.
    And the ps is a put-on. I defy anyone who doesn’t already know to differentiate Clara Schumann’s music from her husband’s or Brahms, based on audible “gender.” Whatever else gender and “race” are with respect to music, audibly discernible ain’t it.

  4. jonathan says:

    Michael–I have had students who swore they could discern the difference. . . difference of tone, of something. That’s why I couch my response with “if”–my confidence is a bit shaken that maybe some hear things I don’t.

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    Well, there is a theory out there that some of the Lieder Ohne Worte were actually written by Fanny and not by Felix, but because she was a girl, the family felt it would be better if they were published under her brother’s name. If that’s true, then which ones? Can’t tell, can we? So much for gender identification in music.
    As for Hitler’s rationale, it’s “perfect” in its totality. Remember, he blamed the Jews for the “worst” control ever perpetrated on the Aryan: Christianity!! Yes, even Christianity is a Jewish plot. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and this Jewish perversion has tainted the Nordic soul. He even thought Islam would have been a better choice of religion for the Deutscher Seele. Fortunately for Islam, it didn’t happen.

  6. Maria Lj says:

    But is this difference “heard” also in the written music? Or is it a performance phenomenon? I wonder what the “difference of tone” (is this some kind of common musical gender stereotype concept based on statistical evidence? or just an individual listener’s conclusion from experience of a gendered difference in musical expression/musical works? surely it doesn’t have to say something also about the social/biological status of the human/s involved?) would be heard as, if that discerning listener had to decide between different interpretations of the same pieces (for example three songs by the composers Schumann/Schumann/Brahms) that they hadn’t heard (about) before, executed by performers who also didn’t know the music or who composed what before. And I do wonder if there will be audible differences in performances of works if the musicians are consciously aware of the gender, age, ethnicity or social class of the composer and are trying to “interpret” that quality as part of the performance. What happens to the supposed musical gender stereotype thinking (in performers and listeners) if they are told that a song cycle by Robert Schumann, for example the “Frauenliebe” songs, were composed by Clara?

  7. Amy Munoz says:

    I thought that your observations were very interesting. I have found that when I dress in a certain way (i.e. more professionally), people treat me differently. But now I think that I may see myself in a different way and therefore act that specific role.

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