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Wagner and Wagnerism

Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His Century

by Martin Gregor-Dellin, translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 575 pp., $25.00

The New Grove Wagner

by John Deathridge, by Carl Dahlhaus

The Fertilizing Seed: Wagner’s Concept of the Poetic Intent

by Frank W. Glass
UMI Research Press, 320 pp., $44.95

Wagner’s Siegfried: Its Drama, History, and Music

by Patrick McCreless
UMI Research Press, 248 pp., $44.95

I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring

by Deryck Cooke
Oxford University Press, 360 pp., $22.50

Wagner and Aeschylus: The Ring and the Oresteia

by Michael Ewans
Cambridge University Press, 271 pp., $29.95

Kingdom on the Rhine: History, Myth and Legend in Wagner’s Ring

by Nancy Benvenga
Anton Press (Harwich, England), 180 pp., £5.95

Staging Wagnerian Drama

by Adolphe Appia, translated with an introduction by Peter Loeffler
Birkhäuser Boston, 94 pp., $5.95

My Life

by Richard Wagner, translated by Andrew Gray, edited by Mary Whittall
Cambridge University Press, 786 pp., $39.50

Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’: An Eye-Witness Account of the Stage Rehearsals of the First Bayreuth Festival

by Heinrich Porges, translated by Robert L. Jacobs
Cambridge University Press, 145 pp., $19.95

In Search of Wagner [Versuch über Wagner]

by Theodor Adorno, translated by Rodney Livingstone
Schocken, 159 pp., $14.50

Tétralogies—Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau: Essai sur l’infidélité

by Jean-Jacques Nattiez
Bourgois (Paris), 287 pp., 80F

Dichtungen und Schriften: Jubiläumsausgabe in Zehn Bänden

by Richard Wagner, edited by Dieter Borchmeyer
Insel Verlag (Frankfurt), 3,400 pp., $49.00

The Opera Quarterly, Commemorative Wagner Issue, volume 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1983)

University of North Carolina Press, 316 pp., $8.95

Three Wagner Essays

by Richard Wagner, translated by Robert L. Jacobs
Da Capo, 127 pp., $15.00


Readers who feel in need of a quick Wagner fix, but who may be put off by the multitude of recent Wagner literature (as is the present reviewer), will do well to await The New Grove Wagner. It contains a concise, merciless account of Wagner’s life by John Deathridge and, at somewhat greater length, a treatment of Wagner’s music, aesthetics, and individual operas and music dramas by Carl Dahlhaus which is a tour de force in its short space. In addition, there is a very valuable up-to-date work list based on the comprehensive catalog of Wagner’s music that is about to be issued in Germany—the first “Köchel” ever issued for this composer.

Perhaps this New Grove Wagner is not quite the little book for neophytes that its format seems to promise. Deathridge writes with some asperity against the background of previous Wagner biography, and Dahlhaus takes musical literacy in his readers for granted. He also assumes familiarity with nineteenth-century German philosophical and political thought in another trenchant but (as Dahlhaus himself might say) more “dubious” chapter on Wagner’s “Theoretical Writings.”

Theoretical writings” they are; they are also the prolix and powerful writ of the ideology of Wagnerism. Indeed, the central issue with Wagner must be seen as the complicity in his work between art and ideology, between art and Wagnerism. In the summary to his chapter, Dahlhaus, who is the foremost Wagner scholar of our time, restates his position on this question squarely. Wagner’s writings, he says, should be seen as

statements in which a composer who was also an intellectual formed in the “Vormärz” period summoned almost the entire intellectual inheritance of his age and forced it into service to justify his conceptions of musical drama. This process involved some drastic reinterpretation of the philosophies upon which it drew; yet the conceptions they were supposed to serve stood in no need of justification…Wagner varied the philosophical, aesthetic and political theories he proclaimed in his writings entirely for the sake of his musical dramas, which in the last analysis were the only thing that truly possessed him. The works are the key to the writings, not vice versa.

That is, the operas and music dramas must be understood first in their own, internal terms, and only second as reflections of ideology. Back of this conviction lies another, articulated elsewhere by Dahlhaus—that the music in these works must be understood before they can be understood as operas or music dramas.

This may seem obvious enough. But it is a longstanding complaint among musicians that the staggering Wagner literature contains so few studies of the music qua music. There is still no generally accepted model for the way the mature music of Wagner “works,” as there is for Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and even Palestrina. An aura of mystification about the technical basis of his music was promoted by Nietzsche’s “Cagliostro of modernism” himself. “Silence was hard for Wagner,” Dahlhaus remarks, but he also reminds us that this composer who wrote about everything else scarcely ever wrote about his music in its practical (as opposed to its metaphysical) aspects. “It is as though he fought shy of utterances about the thing on which, in the last analysis, all else depended.”

Of the dozen or more recent Wagner books mentioned in this review, only two deal centrally with the music—both of them PhD theses, one in musicology and one in music theory, published in the UMI dissertation series. Few of the others devote much attention to music at all. The Wagner issue of a new journal, Opera Quarterly, which has more than 300 pages of material by nearly seventy writers, has not a single illustrative example in music notation. A symbolic omission: can one imagine a similar pile of writing about Manet without a single illustration?

The widely noticed book on Der Ring des Nibelungen by Deryck Cooke, I Saw the World End, is a different case: in the introductory chapters Cooke announces that his comprehensive study will culminate in a definitive musical analysis. However, the book was a post-humously published fragment, and at his death in 1976 Cooke had only got halfway through a preliminary discussion of the librettos. In view of the fact that he began his study in 1963, it has been suggested unkindly that even if he had lived he might never really have got around to the music.

It has also been suggested that maybe it is just as well that he didn’t. For enough is said in Cooke’s introduction, and enough is known from his other books, to make it clear that his way of dealing with the music would have been through an intricate analysis of the semantics of Wagner’s leitmotifs. What interests most Wagner scholars today is definitely not this aspect of the music dramas, but larger questions of form and process. They are interested in the principles of structure in Wagner: principles involving leitmotifs as functional rather than as semiotic elements, and involving rhetorical modeling, narrative strategies, ambiguities of tonality and phraseology, and much else. A valuable bibliography of current work along these lines—much of it produced by Dahlhaus and his circle—is appended to a recent article by Anthony Newcomb, whose work counts as the best in English on this subject.1

Musicologists have their work cut out for them. Some of them are now talking about Wagner studies as a major growth industry. There is still a lot to find out about the way Wagner’s mature music works, and this in turn has a lot to tell us about later music: whereas it is hard to believe that anything remains unsaid about Wagner’s ideology. But musicology, of course, can be a way of defusing ideology. The statement by Dahlhaus cited above can be read as an invitation to accept Wagner’s works as dramatic structures, or even merely as scores, drained of their ideological content.

It can also be read as a tacit invitation to accept Wagner literally on his own high-minded terms. There is philosophy of a sort in Wagner’s “theoretical writings,” but there is also a strong element of hype—the same hype that suffused his day-to-day conduct and that also penetrates right into his works of art themselves. Wagner “summoned up the entire intellectual inheritance of his age” in his writings not only to justify his conceptions of musical drama, but also to promote those dramas; even saying that his art was “the only thing that possessed him” seems inadequate, for it was not only the art but its promotion that possessed Wagner. More is involved here than an artist’s appropriate or inappropriate egotism. That Wagner was the greatest egotist in the history of the arts is perhaps debatable, but there can be no doubt that the world has never seen his equal as an artistic promoter.

Amazing as Wagner’s music dramas are in strictly artistic terms, what is equally amazing is the way he merged art with promotion and promotion with ideology. This is why, on the one hand, the complicity of art and ideology is the central issue with Wagner, and why he has always been suspected of somehow caring less about art than about Wagnerism. And this is why, on the other hand, Wagner when in his fifties began issuing his Gesammelte Schriften in ten volumes, and why he labored to create a myth out of his own life which even today, after a hundred years of often skeptical scrutiny, seems still to defy demythification.


According to this myth, Wagner was destined to redeem human society, which had been slipping badly since the days of Aeschylus, and which had arrived at a particularly poor state in Germany of the Vormärz period, the becalmed political time between the Congress of Vienna and the revolution of 1848. This he would do by seizing the torch of German art from Beethoven and creating a series of novel art works. Dramas fashioned from the newly powerful and prestigious art of music would function in the regenerated world in the way that Aeschylean tragedy did in ancient Athens. As Martin Gregor-Dellin puts it in his new biography, long before Wagner wrote openly on Religion and Art in 1880 “a religion in disguise” was already the real substance of the writings of 1849-1851, whose ostensible subjects are revolution, autobiography, and operatic theory. Eschatological fanaticism, paranoia, and “mental elephantiasis” overcome Wagner from this period on.

Even before being forced into exile in 1849, Wagner while still in his thirties had planned out the necessary series of art works: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal (Tristan und Isolde was a later inspiration). The Ring story was outlined in most of its details in 1848, though Wagner originally meant to set only its ending, Siegfrieds Tod (what is now Götterdämmerung), as is well known. Less well known, though hardly the secret Gregor-Dellin makes them out to be, are the musical sketches that Wagner rejected in 1850. They made him see that the poem had to be expanded; and around this time he also formed the idea of a special shrine for his new religion. This he would ultimately bring into existence in 1876 at Bayreuth; the temple, the priesthood, the ritual, and the aura are all still more or less intact. In the 1930s, too, a vision of a new society embracing the ideology of Wagnerism was for a few years realized, with Wagner performed Aeschylus-fashion on the new annual holy days. With no other artist does the Rezeptionsgeschichteof his work take on such grisly importance.

After having orchestrated his career in this way, Wagner set about similarly orchestrating the image of that career. He was already altering facts to fit the myth in his essay A Communication to My Friends of 1851, and he did this systematically—indeed, with an epic sweep—in his famous and fascinating autobiography. My Life (Mein Leben) goes up to 1864, the first year of his providential support by Ludwig II of Bavaria and of his involvement with Cosima von Bülow, née Liszt. Nothing that has to do with Wagner is uneventful; even the history of this book makes an intricate and instructive tale. Suffice it to say that when in 1963 a scholarly edition was finally made from Cosima’s manuscripts—Wagner dictated the book to her—it turned out that while previous editions were riddled with tiny errors and omissions, they had not been subjected to the sinister major expurgation that had been suspected.

This, however, says nothing about what the editor of the authoritative edition characterizes rather hastily as “the inexactitudes, the bland artifices” that make Wagner’s narrative so dangerous as a source for an objective biography. Deathridge describes My Life as “tendentious dramaturgy” and makes a special point of exposing as many of Wagner’s lies (or selective slips of memory) as possible. That Wagner thought nothing of distorting the nature of personal relationships has been understood more clearly than his readiness to rewrite musical history. Thus he falsified two of his alleged musical epiphanies which linked him to Beethoven—his hearing of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore in Fidelio (which did not happen in 1829) and his attendance at Paris rehearsals of the Ninth Symphony (ditto in 1839). And Wagner repeatedly fudged dates and circumstances concerning his own works so as to heighten their aura with colorful and “positive” autobiographical images.

  1. 1

    The Birth of Music out of the Spirit of Music,” 19th-Century Music, vol. 5, no. 1 (1981), pp. 38-66; see also his “Those Images That Yet Fresh Images Beget,” to appear in Journal of Musicology, vol. 2, no. 4 (1983).

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