Pro and Contra Wagner
“How many professions and confessions I have already made on the subject of Wagner, for Wagner and against Wagner—it seems as if it will never end,” Thomas Mann wrote in 1951, four years before his death. Indeed, Wagner was not only to preoccupy Mann as an artist (“I can never forget what I owe to Richard Wagner in terms of artistic pleasure and artistic understanding—no matter how far I move away from him in spirit,” Mann had written in 1911); he was, it so happened, to have an important practical effect on Thomas Mann’s life. In February 1933, two weeks after Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor, Thomas Mann delivered a lecture in Munich to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death; and he went on to repeat it in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris. It is indeed a masterpiece of criticism and remains one of the best things ever written about Wagner. But because it provided a subtle and critical analysis of Wagner and his work, obliquely attacking the Nazi view of Wagner as a prophet of German nationalism and indeed of National Socialism, and especially because it had been delivered to foreign audiences, it was at once the object of a violent public attack organized by the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch and signed by the composers Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner as well as an array of Munich notables: “We are not disposed to tolerate such disparaging treatment of our great German musical genius from anyone—and most certainly not from Herr Thomas Mann.” Nor did it stop there. Mann, on holiday in the Swiss Alps after his lecture tour, was warned by friends that he would be in personal danger if he returned to Germany. It was the start of his sixteen years of exile.
The long essay based on the offending lecture, “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” and the public attack on it provide the centerpiece of this fascinating book, which brings together in a very readable translation an extensive collection of the novelist’s writings about the composer, based on the selection originally published in Germany in 1967 as Wagner und unsere Zeit. Even the repetitions—and Mann was never one to waste a good phrase—are evidence of his obsession with Wagner. The book tells us much about Mann’s own attitudes, his complex and shifting relationship to German culture and politics; but because he was also a great critic with an exceptional sensitivity to music, it also tells us much about Wagner’s work and his place in the German tradition.
Erich Heller, in a characteristically stimulating and penetrating essay which forms the introduction to this collection, points out that Mann’s 1911 essay on Wagner, “Coming to Terms with Richard Wagner,” was written on notepaper headed “Grand Hotel des Bains, Lido–Venise,” and that his recollections of his youthful experiences of Wagner (“wonderful hours of deep and solitary happiness amidst the theatre throng, hours filled with frissons and brief moments of bliss”) immediately remind one of Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with…
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