Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.

3 Comments

  1. Indeed, Wagner is quite a figure in Taruskin’s history. He has loomed ever since the discussion of the meistersinger back in vol. I.

  2. Taruskin surely knows that there is no single explanation for almost anything, maybe especially for something as complex and intangible as trends in compositional style (or more basically, trends in the level of composers’ self-consciousness about their style).
    Still, the remark stimulates. Who might have preceded Wagner as a significantly self-aware composer with regard to style, somebody who resisted conventional ways of expressing himself and thereby forged a unique lingo that suited his particular expressive purposes?
    One name comes to mind: Berlioz!
    Maybe this helps explain why Berlioz was sometimes taken up by Liszt, Cornelius, and others as a kind of honorary member of the Neudeutsche Schule.

    1. Who might have followed Wagner and Berlioz in this same groove? I think first of Stravinsky, the epitome of a self-aware composer, not only in compositional but in visual style. And whether or not he resisted conventional ways of expressing himself (vis-à-vis Rimsky-Korsakov), he at least _insisted_ on his resistance, as Taruskin recently reminded us in his NYT piece on the “Russian” Stravinsky.*

      Then again, a dozen other examples could be found in the 20th century (starting with Stravinsky’s sometime nemesis Schoenberg). Self-awareness, individuality, lingo, -isms, these became the central brand characteristics of the archetypal 20th-century composer. Another log on the bonfire of Wagner’s influence?

      * http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/arts/music/18stravinsky.html?_r=1

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