I was surprised and delighted to see my name pop up in John Colapinto's New Yorker profile of the young jazz bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding. She'd been reading The Rest Is Noise—on a Kindle, no less—and pondering a quotation that appears in the first chapter: lines from a letter that Richard Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt in 1850, condemning the emergent "classical" tendency in the musical world. It's one of Wagner's most remarkable utterances, and I thought I'd reprint a longer sample here, as a footnote to Colaptino's piece. The translation is by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, in their Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, p. 210:
I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy, for I know at the same time that it is not art in general which will perish but only our own particular type of art—which stands remote from modern life—, whereas true—imperishable—constantly renewed art is still to be born. The monumental character of our art will disappear, we shall abandon our habit of clinging firmly to the past, our egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price: we shall let the past remain the past, the future—the future, and we shall live only in the present, in the here and now, and create works for the present age alone. Remember how fortunate I once considered you were in the practice of your own particular art, precisely because you were a performing artist, a real, actual artist whose every performance was clearly an act of giving: the fact that you could do so only upon a musical instrument was not your fault but the involuntary constraint of our age which compels the individual to depend entirely upon his own resources and renders impossible that sense of fellowship through which the individual artist, with the greatest possible deployment of his powers, might become part of a communal—immediate and actual—work of art. It was certainly not any wish to flatter you which made me say those things, rather was I—half-consciously—expressing my belief that only the performer is the real, true artist. All that we create as poets and composers expresses a wish but not an ability: only the performance itself reveals that ability or art. Believe me, I should be ten times happier if I were a dramatic performer instead of a dramatic poet and composer. — Now that I have come to hold this conviction, it can no longer be of interest to me to create works which I know in advance must be denied all life in the present in return for the flattering prospect of future immortality: what cannot be true today will remain untrue in the future as well. No longer do I abandon myself to the delusive idea of creating works for a future beyond the present: but if I am to create works for the present age, that age must offer me a less repellent aspect than is now the case. I renounce all fame, and more especially the insane specter of posthumous fame, because I love humankind far too dearly to condemn them, out of self-love, to the kind of poverty of ideas which alone sustains the fame of dead composers.
That last sentence is something for opera-company managers and symphony-orchestra programmers to contemplate. If you really wanted to be true to the spirit of Wagner, you would stop playing him and focus on new work instead.