About two weeks ago, the Rt. Rev. James Mathes wrote a piece for the Daily Episcopalian at The Episcopal Cafe on the lack of civil discourse in online forums. He seemed to be particularly troubled by some snarky responses he received on a previous article. A day later, Fr. Tim of Clergy Family Confidential wrote a piece in praise of snark, “Is Snark Un-Christian?”, citing examples of our Lord’s own snarkiness.
Since I was in the middle of a series on the nature of suffering, I didn’t have a chance to respond to the good Bishop and all the other genteel voices calling for less snark in public discourse. Yes, of course, there is truth to this warning. I agree with it completely in the abstract: we needn’t be assholes. This is very true. It’s my eleventh commandment.
But in particular, sarcasm is the best tool for destroying idols. I just assumed that this was general knowledge, but I guess not. Consider The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, who skewer politicians and culture with the politician’s own words and through satire. Even though they’re “fake news”, they seldom make-up facts: they just sarcastically show the truth and we find it funny. A skewering truth with laughter destroys idols.
There are so many examples of this that it boggles my mind someone would think otherwise. But, since this is my blog, here’s four examples of how composers dealt with the idol of Wagner. Like most geniuses, Wagner was one of those forces of nature: love him or hate him, you had to deal with his innovations in harmony, in drama and in . . . well . . . everything (music, by the way, is still reeling from the seventeenth-century genius of JS Bach).
Two of these were fans of Wagner. They didn’t skewer him because they hated him. They skewered him, perhaps, because they were trying to break the spell of his influence on their own music. Perhaps, they wrote not out of spite, but in an effort to destroy the idol of Wagner in their ears. Here they are. Enjoy:
Gabriel Fauré (of Requiem fame) dealt with Wagner by writing a four-hands-one-piano satirical piece: Souvenirs de Bayreuth. He took themes from the Ring and fashioning them into late-nineteenth century dance music. If you’re familiar with any the Ring Cycle most of these tunes will be intimately recognizable. Even the casual listener will recognize the “Ride of the Valkyries”. This was no schoolyard prank, either, as Fauré was a fan of Wagner.
Emmanuel Chabrier, a fellow French Wagner devotee, did something similar with his Souvenirs de Munich, where he took the music from Tristan und Isolde (my favorite Wagner!) and turned them into dance music. He wrote this also for four-hands-one-piano. Apparently, when Hans von Bülow heard it, he went into a fury. It didn’t help that he was Richard Wagner’s second wife’s first husband. Cosima cheated with Wagner while Bülow and Cosima were still married. Somehow, despite this fact, they all got along famously.
Even Claude Debussy, the famous Impressionist composer, wasn’t immune. In Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, the music suddenly stops and there’s a quote from the famous opening of the Tristan prelude right in the middle of this delightful little piece (ca 1:15). Debussy wasn’t even a Wagner fan, as he wrote the least-Wagnerian of all Operas, Pelleas et Mellisande as a response.
The best, though, is the pure snark from Paul Hindemith in his Overture to The Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight by a Second-Rate Spa Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 O’Clock in the Morning. I first heard about it when reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. If this isn’t pure internet forum assholery, I don’t know what is.
So, snark on, my friends. Snark down the idols. Snark your way to Truth.