Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mr. Wagner sees the light

Most people don’t want atonal, vocal, or challenging music on the radio. . . . Why should a commercial or public radio programmer ignore extensive research and devote sizable air time to something that most listeners don’t want to hear?


Today’s owners and programmers get more sophisticated feedback about listeners: Arbitron ratings report how many are listening; Scarborough, MRI and Simmons studies offer profiles on audience income, education, occupation and behavior. And many stations have local listener panels to test new programming concepts. All this feedback gives programmers a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

—Two letters to the Times

The following excerpts from the diary of Cosima Wagner, wife of the composer Richard Wagner, have been made public by the couple’s descendants after more than 130 years of suppression. The entries shed new light on Wagner’s decision to abandon work on an ambitious four-opera cycle, whose working title was "The Ring of the Nibelung."

Tribschen, Feb. 27, 1872—Luncheon today with R[ichard]. and Herr Prof. [Friedrich] Nietzsche, our gloomy young philologist. R. in a rancid mood over progress of "Götterdämmerung." Prelim. surveys show Brünnhilde character a washout with women aged 18–27. Killing of Siegfried got positive feedback, but self-immolation was a definite negative. 68% of respondents said Brünnhilde is not sufficiently empowered. R. says he will need to revise the ending, having Brünnhilde live and, possibly, raise Siegfried’s child alone while pursuing a career as a lawyer.

Prof. Nietzsche skeptical. He sat thoughtfully a long while, warming his hands around his teacup, then said, “Even the most personal conscience is vanquished by the leveling of great numbers.” That boy is developing a disturbing independence of mind. R. says he will need to be watched.

March 14, 1872 — R. spoke feelingly today of the personal tragedies of Beethoven — his rage, his deafness, his incomprehension of niche marketing. “What is the message of the Ode to Joy?” he asked. “All men are brothers. Fine. But only a small percentage of them will ever earn between 75 and 100 thousand a year. The goal of art — all art — is to help us see the good without requiring we actually do anything about it. The upper classes understand this better than anyone.”

I implore him to publish his ideas, but he brushes the suggestion aside, preferring to work on his mail-order catalog.

April 2, 1872 — More trouble with Prof. Nietzsche. R. had research data naming Bayreuth as the perfect place to build our festival theater, given its large population of white German males, our key demographic. Prof. Nietzsche argued the numbers were meaningless, since Germany is, as he says, “chock-full” of white German males. The only excuse for having a Germany in the first place, he said, is to give white German males a watering hole.

While conceding the point, R. defended the study, which was prepared by the biggest anti-Semitic think-tank in Vienna. Even if the conclusions were doctored, so to speak, it was done in an effort to be helpful.

“An anti-Semite is not admirable simply because he lies as a matter of principle,” Prof. Nietzsche said.

Whereupon R. ordered him out of the house.

Oct. 31, 1872 — Tragically, the names Wagner and Wagnerism evoke no feelings of brand loyalty. This according to focus groups in Bonn and Stuttgart. On average, consumers were “only somewhat” inclined to sit through a four-part, twenty-hour music-drama on incest and deicide. Most identified “leitmotif” as a kind of low-tar cigarette.

Meanwhile, Verdi’s Q-rating is through the roof, though R. attributes this less to his music than to the fact that he’s licensed his photograph for use on packages of frozen tapioca.

“Oh, sure,” he said, “we could get those kind of numbers, too, if we wanted to sell out.”

I cringed when Prof. Nietzsche cleared his throat. Our quarrel last spring took a month to smooth over, and lately he’s been going on about something he calls “eternal recurrence,” which, as near as I can make out, has nothing to do with consumption patterns. I braced for yet another moralistic aphorism, but to my surprise, the prof. spoke quietly, in an offhand, almost distracted manner.

“Your problem,” he said, “is a simple residual-to-cost ratio. If you switched the festival to an all-polka format, you’d cut your rehearsal costs in half and gross three times as much. Add a few Irish step-dancers, and you’ll have a program you can drag out anytime for fundraisers.”

R. smiled — for the first time in weeks. He rose from his chair, lifted the score of "The Valkyrie" from the mantelpiece, and dropped it into the fire.

“All right,” he said as he reached for the poker, “let’s give them what they want.”

The diaries end here. Within a month, Cosima returned home to live with her father, the composer Franz Liszt. Friedrich Nietzsche followed his own path into philosophy. He suffered a mental collapse in 1889. Wagner himself spent the rest of his life touring North America, where he enjoyed popular acclaim as The Accordion King.

© 2000 by Joseph Richard Barron

1 comment:

Joe Barron said...

Wrote this a few years ago and was never able to interest anyone in publishing it. The two letters quoted at the top appeared in the New York Times in response to an article by David Schiff lamenting the timidity of the programming on classical radio.