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Music Feature Print



What Is a Wagner Society and Where Did It Come From?

March 31, 2020 - Durham, NC:


Coping with crisisPerhaps you have noticed by now we have a Wagner Society right here in "River City." The Triangle Wagner Society was launched in 2016 inspired by a Duke OLLI class on The Ring.

Several members expressed regrets at the ending of the class. As often happens with delving into the extraordinary music of Richard Wagner, one's taste for more is intensely stirred. One of the students, a hard boiled Wagnerian who has seen more than 20 productions of The Ring, wondered out loud if there might be enough interest in the Triangle area to support a Wagner Society here so that we could delve deeper into the mystical, multi-layered, enticing music of him whom Barry Millington has called "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth."

So it was that three Wagner enthusiasts met at Guglhupf and agreed to reach out to friends and acquaintances who might have some interest. The response was phenomenal. A common reaction was something like "Where have you been? I have been waiting for this for years."

Triangle Wagner Society, in its third year with a solid membership of over 80, meets approximately once a month to hear lectures and programs that have been richly rewarding and entertaining. Once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, these programs will continue, with talks by renowned Wagner scholars and superlative vocal artists who will offer enrichment to our lives.

A Wagner Society is essentially a fan club. It is the only fan club I know of that has existed for over 200 years and continues to grow today. The very first was the brainchild of Emil Heckel, a music publisher in Mannheim, Germany, and a friend of Richard Wagner. It was a simple gathering founded on celebrating Wagner's music and was organized in 1871, shortly after the premiere of Die Walkűre in Munich. Heckel told Wagner of his idea and, of course, he supported it whole heartedly. By 1872, societies had been established in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig and London.

When Wagner began raising money for his dream opera house, these societies pitched in raising money. The societies raised funds for deserving young musicians to attend the first production of The Ring at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in 1869. Today there are more than 150 Wagner Societies in such places as Adelaide, Ankara, Bangkok, Puerto Rico and Israel. There are at least 12 active Wagner Societies in the United States. They engage in a variety of activities to support the music and understand it; such things as supporting concerts, lectures, funding gifted young singers and instrumentalists, publishing and more. I have heard it said that members of the International Association of Wagner Societies see to it that fresh flowers are placed at the graves of Richard and Cosima Wagner at Wahnfried every day.

Wagner's music is like no other. He preferred to refer to his works as music dramas, not operas. His last work, Parsifal was something even more unique. He referred to it as Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage"). He is given credit for opening the field of music to all kinds of modern possibilities. Yet it was not his innovative harmonies that make his music so fascinating. It was not his use of dissonance and leitmotif. Berlioz and Bizet and his own father-in-law, Liszt did as much. It is more how he put the whole of these things together. It is more how he created mystical, psychological, mythical sounds that cause us to see ourselves and the world we live in. No wonder Wagner Societies continue to blossom with people who find his music important to them in many ways.

The man was controversial all his life and continues so today. He is a conundrum of conflicting values. He had a public and open opinion of the creative inferiority of Jews and wrote hateful essays vilifying them. Yet through most of his life he had Jewish musicians in his employ, and Jewish friends he treated with genuine affection. And many of his most generous supporters in the Wagner Societies were Jews. He was self­-centered on the one hand and outlandishly generous on the other. He borrowed money from friends, never paid it back and felt he deserved it. He longed for genuine affection from women and yet was often unfaithful to the significant women in his life (though the reality of his womanizing has been greatly exaggerated).

There are more conflicting character traits in this mysterious man who had such great musical skill, but severely lacked a grasp of social decency. He abused friends, yet all sorts of people adored him and considered it a great pleasure to spend time in his company. It is no wonder that many continue to seek to understand him as a means of grasping clues to his awesome musical creations.

Deems Taylor wrote of him, "What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor brain and body didn't burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy that lived inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?"

The above quote is taken from M. Owen Lee's delightful little book Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, which closes like this: "The intuitive Wagner saw deeper into human nature than the rest of us are likely to do. And so we need him, … and his God-given power to (enable us to) see unerringly into ourselves and so to help us with our lives."

If you would like to delve into the miraculous phenomenon of Wagner and Wagner societies, you can start close to home, here.

There are many, many more, including, for openers: http://wagnersocietyofamerica.org/, http://wagner-dc.org/, https://www.trianglewagnersociety.com/resources/wagner-societies-in-north-america/, & https://www.richard-wagner.org/rwvi/en/.