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It is not always easy to remember that Wagner was a consummate musician, and certainly worthy to be heard in occupied Palestine, so grievously has his reputation suffered from his writings. Kerman is cool on The Ring. Wagner may have muffed its ultimate message, but the main point is surely Wotan's self-willed elimination. Shelley consigned a protesting Jupiter to the abyss and left Prometheus to preside over a new-made world in which 'it still is the pain of bliss / To move, to breathe, to be.' Thus we must also suffer, but do better than Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Wagner's philosophical ambivalence puts yet more emphasis on the music of The Ring. So a production such as Chéreau's, which flies repeatedly in the face of the music, remains as mischievous as it was in 1976.

Kerman's 'Morbidity of Music' concerns his stout refutation of prophecies about music's imminent demise. He mentions an apparent resurgence of opera in America. Living as we do in an essentially visual culture, opera has a far better chance than symphony. But any analysis of performance facts will show that opera too is virtually a museum art. Minor composers of the past pop up for our pleasure; the minimal will inevitably follow as contemporary composers continue to fail us. Monteverdi and Schütz were major discoveries, but it is only the marshmallow in us that has preferred Mahler to Sibelius.

A book Kerman cannot approve is Bach and the Dance of God by Wilfrid Mellers. Kerman is so right to prefer such cantatas as Christ lag in Todesbanden or Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit to the multitude of later works in which ineptitudes of the text can be excused only as Bach's misguided attempt to be a little fashionable. Cantankerous cantor as Bach often was, whose work yet deserves the most detailed study and analysis, few of us would now belittle the inspiration of Mellers or his teaching. If the Apocryphal Acts of St John has Jesus leading a ring dance of the disciples on Good Friday, I can certainly hope that Mellers is now enjoying a jig or sarabande, if not with God himself, then certainly with the mighty John Sebastian.

Copyright © 30 June 2008 Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt


Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Joseph Kerman

The New York Review of Books, 2008
ISBN13 978-1-59017-265-0
xv+373 pages, hardback

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