If Wagner Scored The Debates
by David Yearsley, October 5, 2016
I have felt more refreshed sitting through five hours of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung than I did after the excruciatingly slow ninety minutes of Monday’s long-dreaded presidential debate.
Hey, that’s it—Wagner to the rescue!
The main problem with the Clinton-Trump-Holt three-way was not that nothing happened, but that there was no music. Some forty-seven seconds into the mirthless quagmire I thought of an anecdote Clancy Sigal related to me about the autocratic boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn:
“Sat in a rough cut screening with him. Watching, I think, a Bible inspired western. Cohn’s famous ass began itching, he scratched, and bellowed, ‘Slow, too fucking slow – PUT MUSIC UNDER IT!’”
Already as the candidates shuffled onto the Hofstra University stage without any stentorian trumpets to remind me and the rest of the television audience that we should believe the event had any relevance whatever, I realized the evening would be epically boring. The silence was far more deafening than The Donald’s bluster.
To liven up the next match-up I’m thinking of something like the celebrated 1957 Warner cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?” with Elmer Fudd as Wagner’s ill-fated hero Siegfried in a too-large helmet trying to hunt down a sexy Bugs Bunny playing the part of Bwünnhilde. Now here’s a form of entertainment that would energize the entire electorate: presidential debate as music-drama.
Wagner’s use of musical markers—called leitmotifs (leading motives)—is the perfect compositional tool to be applied to the relentlessly repetitive nature of modern political rhetoric as practiced by its reigning stars. In his monumental Ring cycle—it totals some seventeen hours that would seem like a quick walk around the block after the final curtain mercifully goes down on the third act of the Clinton-Trump debates, not forgetting the numbing intermezzo to be endured from the prospective veeps—Wagner affixed musical name tags to characters, objects, and ideas. These identifiers are related to each other in complex ways fascinating to devotees, unbearably manipulative to the unconvinced.
Thus the expansive E-flat major arpeggios of the opening of the first opera, Das Rheingold, evoke Nature itself. The gold that lies at the bottom of the Rhine is a kindred arpeggiated figure, extracted as it were from Nature. The Ring motive in turn is fashioned from the same material, now molded into descending diminished harmony portraying not only its fateful legacy but also the literally diminishing of the gold into a small, all-powerful form. There are nearly two hundred of these motives in the Ring—plenty to stock the sound banks and add portent and panache to the next two presidential Song Contests on the Wartburg—to throw a bit of Tannhäuser into the mix.
Now that you mention it, Tannhäuser’s by-turns-louche, by-turns-sanctimonious behavior shares much with Trump’s, who’d anyway be a lot less unendurable strumming a harp when he speaks or—soon—is made to sing.
But for now let’s stick with the Ring: we’ll save Tannhäuser for Trump’s first summit with Putin.
Glowering at his Hofstra podium, the violently somnambulent, red-checked Trump brought to mind the dragon Fafner hoarding the Rheingold he’d extorted from the Gods. The motive is serpentine and sinister, looping back on itself with self-aggrandizing Trumpian insistence. Having stolen his gold, Fafner won’t show his tax return either. This leitmotif needs to be heard through the living room speakers when the CNN split screen gives a scaly close-up of the Donald.
Once you start into the deep, dark Wagnerian forest uncanny connections abound in the shadows. Before he turned himself into a dragon, Fafner was a giant and he brained his brother giant, Fasolt, so he could have all the gold himself: Donald hated his doomed alchoholic brother Freddy, and Donald got the alleged fortune.
But as in the leitmotivs themselves, there are unexpected inversions to be discovered, too. Whereas Wotan tries, Trump-like, to stiff his workers after they’ve put in black marble and gold fixtures in all the ensuite bathrooms in Valhalla, the Norse version of Trump Tower, it is tough guy Trump-as-Fafner who gets paid this time around.
That’s the good news: we don’t need to confine Trump’s outsized ego to one character. Trump is a lightning rod for leitmotifs. Every time he mentions his “beautiful hotels” and “amazing companies” we hear Valhalla.
Holt may try to raise his baton to stop the me-me-me effusions, but this Wagnerian monomaniac just keeps galumphing and glowering and off-gasing.
And when he says we need to keep “jobs jobs jobs,” let’s imagine the subterranean factory drones, the Nibelungen, hammering away at the gold chained to their windowless manufacturing stations.
And “Make America Great Again” for the gazillioneth time? That is the Spear: braggadocious (Trump’s best word from the debate) chest-thumping that leads all the way down to destruction—to the Twlight of the Gods, the end of the American Empire. Okay, the Spear is Wotan’s theme, as opposed to Fafner’s, but that’s the fun of the game: plunge your hand into grab bag and you’re bound to pull out tasty Wagner goodies.
As for Hillary it would be easy to crown her with Brünnhilde’s horned helmet: with her armor-plated blond hair, Clinton has practically done that already. I expect the Valkyries to lay siege to my in-box as soon as it say it, but this is a trouser role for the former Secretary of State, though one more medieval than the stunning red number she wore on Monday.
Hillary can only be Siegfried, the hero who instead of saving the world helps it on its way to the fiery end wrought by climate change, the Rhine flooding the world at the close of the Ring cycle and extinguishing the carbon menace. Her leitmotif exudes ominous purpose: brave resolve dark; incestuous secrets; destroyed emails. Hers is a theme you just can’t trust.
So much for the quickest glimpse at what the leitmotiv debate game promises.
But more than fifty years on from Cohn we can surely do better than simply adding a soundtrack, Lester Holt fiddling at his little desk to queue up the orchestral undergirding required to retain a vague interest from America, not to mention the world.
What with all that pitch correction and voice simulation software there’s gotta be an app or something that would transform the candidates’ blather into bracing song.
Hillary, whose attempt at a public rendition of Happy Birthday sank her 2008 candidacy, will no longer be a tone-deaf drone, but the Birgit Nilsson of the Beltway, Trump a chief-executive heldentenor to rival Jon Vickers.
Now I can’t wait till the next Donald and Hillary duet.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)