Tuesday, November 25, 2014

'German lives matter': Shedding light on crowds and conflict in music and the real world through the prisms of Nuremberg and Ferguson

What a kerfuffle I got into when I objected to the interruption of a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert by demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown! It was especially galling to some on Facebook that I posted my change of mind about the incident a day after saying it was an honor for the orchestra to be deemed relevant enough in today's world to attract protesters.

The much-dreaded rioting in the streets that marked the aftermath of the fatal August incident recurred spectacularly last night after a grand jury determined there were insufficient grounds for indicting the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown.

Police and protesters act out their roles in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision..
Now, in response to that mass lawlessness,  I'm ready to suggest that the SLSO be proactive in reaching out in good will to the community, specifically inviting the demonstrators back to Powell Hall with the hope that this time they will stay to listen.

And what will be on the program? Setting aside the impracticality of my selection, I maintain that the riot that ends the second act of "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" plus the protagonist Hans Sachs' monologue early in the third might be about the best that classical music has to offer on the subject.

There is precedent for the tumult Wagner brings to a peak in the second-act finale. Choruses in Passion settings called "turbas" allowed such composers as J.S. Bach to indulge a dramatic flair that the formality of musical settings of the Gospel narrative otherwise discouraged.

"Turbulent" derives from the Latin word for crowd ("turba,") and these choruses vividly contrast with stately Passion chorales and heart-wrenching arias in presenting uproar, specifically in opposition to Jesus during his final pre-Resurrection days. A short example that's better known than the vivid turbas in Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions will be heard often next month, when choruses throughout the English-speaking world bark out "He trusted in God, that he would deliver him, let him deliver him, if he delight in him" in performances of Handel's "Messiah."

The brawling that concludes Act 2 of "Die Meistersinger" is entirely a secular matter, springing from an aesthetic and personal dispute between Sextus Beckmesser, a foolish pedant, and his fellow mastersinger Sachs as Beckmesser attempts to perform a clumsy original song without interruption. Their noisy argument brings out the Nurembergers, including members of and adherents to competing guilds, and disorder piles up in delicious confusion.

Eugen Gura as Sachs contemplating eternal folly.
I'm not suggesting any but the roughest of  parallels between the operatic melee and the Ferguson disorders (which many brave residents tried to forestall, by the way).  But if a semistaged version of the Nuremberg riot were linked (after the Night Watchman's brief coda of consolation) to Sachs' reflective monologue "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!," a worthwhile lesson could be imparted that might make a small contribution to the healing Ferguson sorely needs now.

I'll quote Peter Branscombe's translation in part: "Madness! Madness! / Everywhere madness! / Wherever I look searchingly / in city and world chronicles, / to seek out the reason / why, till they draw blood, / people torment and flay each other / in useless, foolish anger! / No one has reward / or thanks for it: / driven to flight, / he thinks he is hunting; / hears not his own / cry of pain / When he digs into his own flesh / he thinks he is giving himself pleasure! / It is the old madness, / without which nothing can happen / nothing whatever! / If it halts somewhere in its course / it is only to gain new strength in sleep: / suddenly it awakens, / then see who can master it!"

Digging into our own flesh: Ferguson burns on Nov. 24.
You'll note that Sachs acknowledges the role of conflict in fomenting change. He deplores violence's  perpetual energy and (as the monologue continues) resolves to apply himself in transforming wasteful struggle into a perpetual good. Sachs' interests in the process are laden with cultural patriotism, which comes to the fore in his concluding warning and the opera's final chorus.

As Steven R. Cerf pointed out in the essay "False Dawn" (Opera News, Jan. 16, 1993), Sachs' address to his fellow Germans was often cut in Metropolitan Opera productions during the same era the Nazis were exalting it as support for their imperialist, racist program. Wagner's well-known and oft-proclaimed anti-Semitism seemed to lend proleptic support for this malign interpretation.

But in context, Sachs' "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!" monologue joins with the opera's finale to say that integrity is the watchword for all progress, reconciliation is a worthwhile agenda, and traditional values are a reliable but not exclusive guide to civic peace. Shared values undergird the hope that new ways of acting and thinking will be adopted for the benefit of all.

The citizens of Ferguson, civilian and law-enforcement personnel alike, are perhaps not hearing their own cries of pain as they play their accustomed roles. As far as race is concerned, maybe no Americans are hearing those cries properly.

"German lives matter," Wagner's philosophical cobbler is saying, in effect. "Black lives matter," the protesters shouted in October as they left the hall without staying for Brahms' German Requiem. With my fantasy concert in mind, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra could proclaim musically that all lives matter — aided by a nasty genius' masterwork.

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