Tag: opera

Truth Liberates

Truth Liberates posted in Eleison Comments on December 11, 2010

The argument of the last three numbers of “Eleison Comments” (175–177), has been merely provoked by the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), because he is by no means the worst of modern artists. That argument has not been that God exists, so modern art is “bosh” (see Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” I, 6). Rather it has been, modern art is bosh, so God exists. There is an important difference here between descending from the cause to the effect and climbing from the effect to the cause.

If I start from the existence of God as a given, and reason downwards to the wrongness of, for instance, modern art, modern music, modern opera productions, etc., firstly God and his existence are not thereby proved, and secondly his religion can seem to come down on us like a wheel-clamp upon our liberty. Now I am me, and whatever it is that is me wants to be free to choose what art I like. But here comes a Traffic Warden supposedly from Heaven to clamp that freedom? No thank you!

If on the other hand I start out from my own experience of modern art, I am firstly starting out from what I directly know. And if my experience of it is, honestly, dissatisfactory – that is not necessarily the case, but if it is – then I can begin to wonder why I feel such unease in front of highly praised modern artists. I listen again to the praises. I am still not convinced. Why not? Because modern art is ugly. What is wrong with ugliness? It lacks beauty. And if I continue to climb through the beauty of, for instance, landscapes or women as portrayed in art, to their beauty in Nature, to a harmony of parts running through all creation, my thoughts have climbed from my personal experience a considerable way towards the Creator.

In this latter case he no longer resembles a traffic warden with wheel-clamps. On the contrary, far from clamping down on our freedom, he seems to be leaving us human beings with free-will and with freedom to proclaim ugliness through the land and to create a world of chaos. Maybe he is hoping that the ugliness will become horrible enough to turn our thoughts towards the True and the Good. At this point his religion resembles no longer any clamp from outside on our liberty within, but rather a help and liberator of all that is best in me from all that is worst, because unless I am proud, I am bound to admit that not everything inside myself is ordered and harmonious.

At which point supernatural grace is no longer conceived of as a kind of policeman landing on the back of my nature to control by force whatever it does. Rather it is a very good friend that will, if I wish, enable the best in me to liberate itself from the worst, or at least strive to do so.

Was not, and is not still, one driving force behind Vatican II and the Conciliar religion, the widely shared sense of Catholic Tradition being a sort of unbearable policeman, as though all natural impulses are bad? Yes, the impulses of my fallen nature are bad, but there is good in our nature underneath that bad, and this good must be allowed to breathe, because from inside us it synchronizes perfectly with the true religion of God coming from outside. Otherwise I fabricate a false religion out of my bad impulses – like Vatican II.

Kyrie eleison.

“Tristan” Production

“Tristan” Production posted in Eleison Comments on October 17, 2009

After an absence from London’s Royal Opera House of some 40 years, it was delightful to be offered by friends last week a ticket to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” It did make a delightful evening, but oh dear! – the modern production! The classics of yesteryear are one thing. Their production on stage today can be quite another!

A classic like “Tristan and Isolde,” which was staged for the first time in 1865, becomes a classic because it succeeds in expressing human problems and solutions that belong to all the ages. Never for instance have the passions of romantic love between man and woman been so skilfully and powerfully expressed as in the music-drama of “Tristan.” But every time a classic drama is put on stage, its production can obviously belong only to the time of its staging. So the classic depends in itself on the author, but in its production on the producer, and on how he understands the classic he is producing.

Now Wagner can be called the father of modern music, especially through the revolution wrought by the chromatic harmonies of “Tristan,” constantly shifting. Nobody can say Wagner is not modern. Yet what the current production of “Tristan” at Covent Garden shows is the huge distance even between Wagner’s time and our own. This producer had either no understanding or no regard for Wagner’s text, as two little examples may show. In Act III when Kurwenal is meant to be looking out to sea for Isolde’s ship, he is shown watching Tristan all the time. On the contrary when Isolde finally rushes in to find Tristan dying, Wagner’s text has her of course scanning him for the least sign of life, but this producer has her on the floor with her back turned to him! This flagrant violation of the original text, and of common sense, ran through the production from beginning to end.

What did the producer think he was doing? I would like to know. Either he had no common sense, or if he had any, he set out deliberately to defy it. Worse, the Royal Opera House probably paid him a royal sum to do so, because it will have judged that today’s audiences would enjoy the defiance. One is reminded of Picasso saying that he knew his art was nonsense, but he also knew that it was what people wanted. Indeed last week’s audience, which should have been hooting such nonsense off the stage, instead watched docilely and applauded warmly. In Wagner’s own country today, unless I am mistaken, classic productions of his operas are rare.

One is bound to ask, what is happening to common sense? Where are today’s audiences going? How can a people long survive which takes pleasure, for example, in lovers turning their backs on one another at the moment of death? Objection: it is only theatre. Reply: theatre holds up the mirror to society. Conclusion: society today either has no common sense, or what little it still has, it is trampling on. Since common sense is the sense of reality, such a society cannot survive.

Kyrie eleison.

Wagnerian Redemption

Wagnerian Redemption posted in Eleison Comments on September 1, 2007

Teaching some Humanities to pre-seminarians, I have again chosen to introduce them to Richard Wagner, German composer of famous music-dramas, and one of the most interesting characters of modern times. Straddling most of the 19th century (1813–1883), he was certainly not the greatest man of his time, but he was surely its most comprehensive artist. For breadth and depth of his world-vision, he must rank alongside Dante and Shakespeare, but not for truth, because he held up the mirror to an age falling away from God. Here was his greatness, and his misery.

Here was his greatness, because there is no question that he had a real sense of the heights and depths of man, crying out for religion. His misery lay in the fact that he came up with a non-religious solution to that religious need. However his substitute solution has been enormously popular to this day, precisely because he seems to satisfy that religious need while leaving the real God, as modern man wishes, out of the picture. Hence the veritable cult of Wagner by “Wagnerians,” for whom his music-dramas can act as a substitute religion.

What is that solution of his? Basically, the redemption of a fallen world by love between man and woman. In each of the four great works of his maturity, “The Ring,” “Tristan and Isolde,” “The Mastersingers” and (with a slight variation) “Parsifal,” the basic plot is the same. Up against, primarily, a social structure and authority unable to adapt and therefore stranded in unreality, and up against, secondarily, a kind of underworld also resisting, there arises a hero to love and win a heroine, united with whom in redemptive love he brings about a revolution which, through their love, rescues society and restores reality.

In other words, the authority figure or figures are ineffective and, if not themselves villains, at least seconded by villains, whereas if only the boy can find his girl, he and she will make everything happy ever after. Does anyone recognize the formula of numberless Hollywood films? Of course a good wife is a tower of strength to her husband and children (see Proverbs Chapter 31), but to rest the salvation of the world upon her shoulders is asking altogether too much – how long are households patterned primarily on Hollywood apt to last? Often not long.

Of course Wagner is not the sole source of Hollywood plots, but he is the main origin of a mass of its sub-Wagnerian music, and there is no denying the huge influence of that music and of Wagner’s mythology on modern times. Boys and girls, take heed. Wagner is a great musician, but there is no substitute for the true God. People in authority are not automatically antiquated, or villains; and neither of you is the complete solution to the other’s problems. You both need Our Lord Jesus Christ and the fullness of his Catholic Truth, and his sacraments.

Kyrie eleison.