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FROM READERS: What can the works of Wagner say about Germany's future?

Monday, April 22, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
The restored Reichstag Building in Berlin is famous for its solar dome. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons user Cezary Piwowarski.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D, is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

“If we read the music and the metaphors [of Die Meistersingers] rightly, we can say five things. Art, for Richard Wagner, is fashioned from both intuition and honest craftsmanship, from both innovating spirit and respect for tradition. It can speak powerfully to us if we have within ourselves the capacity to respond to it. It can survive the fall of empires to speak to future civilizations about the civilization that produced it. It can tell us what we need to know about ourselves, perhaps most of all about the flaw in human nature that makes mysteries of our lives. And it can help us to accept the inevitable sadness in life – as well as sing like songbirds from the sheer joy of being alive.”—M. Owen Lee, Wagner and the Wonder of Art (2007, University of Toronto Press, p.85)

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I have the great privilege of singing in the MU Choral Union, which on Thursday, April 25 (7 p.m.), will perform a Collection of Opera Choruses in Jesse Auditorium. One song particularly captured my historical imagination out of the many memorable selections we have been rehearsing. In the Richard Wagner opera Die Meistersingers, the cobbler and poet Hans Sachs (based upon an actual historic character) renounces his personal happiness (eg, the possibility of marriage to young Eva) to enable her true love Walther’s new song (the Prize Song) to win the annual contest and in the process refresh the strict conventions of the Meistersingers while still upholding and honoring those traditions. Die Meistersingers itself grew out of the failed Revolution of 1848 in Germany but reflects many of the same hopes and concerns of the earlier American Revolution (“We, the People”), although nation-building obviously ended horribly for Germany because of its powerful delusions (the ‘Wahn’ that Sachs writes and sings about so poignantly in the opera). How then does music, the most abstract and ephemeral of art forms, relate to The Past? Can music and art contain many, perhaps contradictory, meanings at once?

When I hear the rising musical strains of the Procession and Chorale from Die Meistersingers, I find myself asking which Germany actually comes to mind? Is it the Nuremberg of the celebrated Northern Renaissance (eg, Albrecht Durer), ancestral home of the actual Hans Sachs? Or is it the revolutionary Germany of 1848, inspired by the American and French examples, in which Wagner first conceived Die Meistersingers? Or was it Nazi Germany, with its appropriation of Wagner by the Third Reich as musical background (eg, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) for the infamous Nuremberg rallies? Or is it in fact the new united Germany of the present?

Germans still wrestle with an enormous amount of historical guilt and are trying to rise anew like a phoenix, symbolized by the new Reichstag building in Berlin with its solar dome growing out of the ruins of the old Reichstag building destroyed in 1933 by the Nazis. Germany has also adopted costly energiewende policies designed to actually change the course of history by rolling back carbon emissions while also eliminating nuclear power, assuming the vital world leadership role in renewable energy that the United States has been unwilling to assume.

So is this daring initiative Wahn or a new Meistersong? Only time and history will tell, but I think all of us who care about the future of democracy and energy policy need to hope that Germans, in the words of good Hans Sachs, “manage finely to guide the madness so as to perform a nobler work”…

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor Joy Mayer.


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