Tel Aviv University to Host Conference on Wagner

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Richard Wagner.Credit: AP

Tel Aviv University is to hold a conference on the controversial German composer Richard Wagner on Thursday. The event, entitled “In the Footsteps of Wagner: The Politics of Music in the 20th Century,” is open to the public.

The conference’s organizers say that from the late 19th century through the 20th, many Central European writers viewed Wagner’s works as a huge pall that hung over Western culture. They were a shadow to be fled from, but also to return to.

The conference, headed by Professor Galili Shahar, is sponsored jointly by the Humanities Faculty at Tel Aviv University and the Musicology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It will start at 9:30 A.M. in the Gilman Building.

“For example, Nietzsche in his later period, Karl Krause, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Bertholt Brecht, Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno showed deep interest in the multi-faceted works of Wagner. Yet at the same time, they saw Wagner’s work as a place of musical redundancy that threatened to engulf the character of the individual − the fictional and real, that of the listener himself − in the enchantment of the total illusion,” wrote the organizers.

Among the prominent participants are historians and musicologists, including Professor Moshe Zuckermann; Professor Jehoash Hirshberg, who will speak about the acceptance of Wagner in Italy and Dr. Benjamin Perl on the orchestral work, “Siegfried Idyll.”

Musicologist Naftali Wagner (no relation to the composer) will speak about Wagner’s appearances in literature and what he refers to as “the demonization of Wagner in literature, compulsiveness, emotional manipulation, megalomania and overproduction that are attributed to him.” The lecture will include excerpts from several literary works, including some that refer, seemingly in passing, to the power and influence of Wagner’s musical innovations. Among these works, which attempt to describe the Wagnerian experience from within, the work of Thomas Mann is the most prominent example.

In this context, it is appropriate to mention that in Western classical music, certain chords sound tense and unstable. Listeners who hear such chords expect the following chords to bring resolution. This feeling of tension followed by resolution, which is common to all listeners who are familiar with classical music, is an integral part of the genre, from Monteverdi to Wagner. But for Wagner it is different: He uses the expectation of resolution to increase the tension. His method is prolonged tension over time, using a chord that is more tense than the tense chords used in pre-Wagnerian music, followed by a chord that is even more tense, which in turn is not resolved, followed by another, and so on.

In his work Buddenbrooks, Mann described at length the special feeling that this sort of chord progression creates until the resolution finally occurs. Naftali Wagner will also mention Wagner’s appearances in works by Hermann Hesse, E.M. Forster, Thomas Bernhard and Shulamith Hareven.

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