A review of On Opera by Bernard Williams

Reviewed by Bob Williams

On Opera
by Bernard Williams
Yale University Press
2006, ISBN 0-300-08976-7, $30.00, 192 pages

The author died before he could organize the material of this book and bring it to a final form. This book is therefore a collection of material, more or less finished, but not entirely brought to the unity that one normally expects from a work finished under happier circumstances. Bernard Williams was a philosopher with a turn for practical rather than theoretical considerations, and his interest in music, although intense, was not that of a writer devoted exclusively to its consideration.

The introductory essay, ‘The Nature of Opera,’ his contribution to Grove’s Dictionary of Music, shows abundant evidence of analytic skills. He explores how opera differs from similar forms, the operettas and musical comedies, and what he has to offer is interesting, but it is in his consideration of its development from opera seria that he shows opera as a source of wonder and attraction. The refinements that he draws between Verdi and Wagner are enlightening and his sense that opera is something other than the simple conjunction of words, actions, and music leads to valuable conclusions. These conclusions illuminate underlying facts concerning opera in general and explain often observed but baffling phenomena of its outcomes and the behaviors of its supporters.

The repertoire contains fewer works than have been created. Most operas were created for a debut and, with luck, a profitable run of performances. These were, as they were intended to be, expendable consumer products. A few by reason of their quality or for extraneous reasons became part of the repertoire. Some are repeated because they are masterpieces and some are repeated because they are bravura creations, enjoyable on more or less exclusively sensuous terms. We watch them repeatedly because they are enjoyable as performances and not as experiences likely to affect us profoundly.

Williams considers the primacy of Mozart and especially those operas that Mozart wrote in collaboration with Da Ponte. It is impossible to see these operas as consistent works regardless of the supreme music and the gifted text that accompanies it. In all of these operas there is something a little bit wrong and a little bit unpalatable, That this disturbs us in a genre that usually borders on the preposterous speaks eloquently of how much nearer to us these operas are than most others. Williams grapples with the problems that this implies and arrives at some answers. These are far from definitive and leave the problems of these particular operas much where they were. His investigations are not helped by a style that is somewhat wooden.

Regardless of this shortcoming, he makes important points: that there is, for example, no real criticism of opera and much of what passes for it is descriptive and rhapsodic rather than the product of a judgment that is sober, capacious, and informed.

In ‘Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics’ Williams takes up the problem indicated in the title, but he also involves himself in the more basic and immediate question of how we ought to feel about a man and his work when that man was such a louse. He rejects the idea of Wagner’s necessity. He is not, Williams points out, necessary to us in the same way that Bach and Mozart are necessary although he tempers this by his positing a necessity for Wagner in relation to modern music. This hedging is itself a problem. Logically, a necessity is a necessity and would tend to be either relative or an absolute. Either way, what Williams sets up here would not appear workable. Williams sees the problem of Wagner in terms of anti-Semitism, which is certainly the area in which he offends and offends deeply. The thrust of Williams’s examination is that there is nothing overtly in the works that constitutes objectionable matter on the basis of anti-Semitism. The other question – the pathologically ego-ridden lunacy of his heroes – he touches on lightly and only by implication. This might be as serious a reason as any other to find Wagner an uncomfortable pleasure. Williams focuses on the funeral music for Siegfried in Gotterdammerung as an example of how Wagner evaded or at least satisfied aesthetic demands that sidestepped the issue of politics. But his end forgets his beginning, and he provides no answers to the questions that he raised.

In ‘Authenticity and Re-Creation,’ an edited version of an address that Williams gave to some musicologists, he explores the relationship between authentic music practice and innovative staging. He finds that these are not necessarily in conflict and that one can in fact the enhancement of the other. He cites with favor a production by Peter Sellars of Handel’s Theodora. But he sees his issue is still not satisfactorily clear. Granted that the production of the music for Theodora adhered to what was available to Handel, it is not necessarily what Handel would have wanted had he not been subject to the limitations of his time. As a general principle this would be true of Handel, remote from us in time, and of Wagner who, although he belonged to a different age, is closer to us in time. This line of thought brings musician and director back to where they began. He is able from this position to make a startlingly good point: that it is the business of authenticity, not to make music sound old, but to make it sound new in the sense of fresh.

This book will contribute something to your knowledge of opera but it will not be easy to read. The awkwardness of Williams’s English makes the book unpleasant. It baffles me that a man who obviously had such a love for music could have written so unmusically. For the specialists among you this will be a valuable book, but it will engage no other attentions with any profit.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places