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Klingsor’s Apprentices

Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics

edited by David C. Large, edited by William Weber, edited by Anne Dzamba Sessa
Cornell University Press, 361 pp., $14.95 (paper)

People who start to think about Wagner too much go crazy,” the composer’s great-granddaughter recently remarked to an interviewer. And indeed it is hard to think of any artist who has had so widespread and disturbing an influence. His music has inspired terror as much as affection. Puccini talked of “this terrible music [that] destroys us and ends in nothing.” The Russian poet Alexander Blok called Wagner “a summoner and invoker of ancient chaos.” This interesting volume of six essays with an introduction and conclusion traces some of the ramifications of Wagnerism both as an organized movement and as an artistic and intellectual influence in several countries. During Richard Wagner’s lifetime and for a generation after his death. Wagnerism was a movement with implications that went far beyond the wall of the opera houses of the world, and the debate about the meaning of his symbolism and the interpretation of his works has never ceased.

The impact of Wagner has been so great not only because of his musical genius—after all there have been other great composers of comparable originality and ambition—but because he was as copious a writer as he was a composer. In addition to the librettos of his operas, which he wrote himself, his collected prose fills ten volumes. This has not done his reputation any good, particularly because the violent anti-Semitism that recurs throughout his work has led to his being widely regarded as somehow responsible for Hitler and to a ban on his music in Israel. But in his lifetime many people became familiar with his general ideas before they had heard much of his music. In France, for example, Baudelaire and others were discussing Wagner’s views about the revolutionary art of the future before they had had a chance to hear much more than an occasional performance of fragments from Lohengrin or Tannhäuser.

Moreover Wagner’s understandable obsession with the promotion of his own works and the creation of ideal conditions for their realization made him an indefatigable protagonist of new standards and new forms of music and drama, so that he seemed to many a symbol of all that was new and revolutionary in art. His philosophy, derived from Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, was never very profound; and his political inclinations varied according to the extent to which any political system might give him what he wanted for the attainment of his artistic ambitions. He had been a genuine revolutionary on the barricades with Bakunin in 1849, calling for the abolition of the state (and especially, of course, of the Saxon state which he felt had not given him, as director of the opera in Dresden, adequate support for his creative work). As a result, as Gerald D. Turbow shows in his essay on Wagnerism in France included in this volume, he was in the minds of Frenchmen identified with revolution of all kinds—“the Courbet of music,” an adherent of the “school of M. Proudhon,” “a victim of Saxon tyranny, a democrat and a revolutionary.”

Later in his life it seemed to Wagner expedient to gloss over his past as a political revolutionary, for which he had suffered years of impoverished exile. He became dependent on the favor of the king of Bavaria and so became a romantic monarchist. He hoped in vain for the support of Bismarck and the new German Reich—to the extent of writing a poem to the German armies before Parls in 1870 and a march in honor of the German emperor (though for that matter he was also to write a march for the centenary of American independence in 1876). After his death Wagner’s widow Cosima was as determined to obliterate from his biography his active participation in the revolutions of 1848–1849 as she was to blot out any references to his first wife or Frau Wesendonk or any of the other women he had loved. Yet the revolutionary impact of Wagner was never wholly lost: and several recent productions of the Ring have reverted to the view put forward by Bernard Shaw in 1898 that the work can be interpreted as an allegory of the capitalist system and the twilight of the bourgeoisie.

It is primarily Wagner’s anti-Semitism that has gained Wagnerism its bad name, though it was characteristic of the composer that all his opinions were developed in relation to the fate of his own works. Judaism in Music, perhaps his most notorious pamphlet, of which the crown princess of Prussia said she had never read anything “so violent, conceited and unfair,” originated as an attack on the success of Meyerbeer, a success made intolerable by Wagner’s own apparent failure. But when Jewish conductors were indispensable as interpreters of his work they were admitted to his intimate circle, where their belief in the transcendental importance of Wagner’s art enabled them to put up with occasional humiliating remarks. The racial theories of Wagner and his followers were certainly one element, if not a very large one, in the formation of the völkisch ideology in Germany in the 1880s and 1890s, which his widow and disciples reflected as much as created. But it was the association of the Bayreuth festival and the Wagner family with Hitler personally that seemed to many people to make Wagner’s music unacceptable. The composer’s son Siegfried was an early admirer of Hitler, who stayed in Wahnfried, the family house, in October 1923, while the octogenarian Cosima was still alive. Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s widow (he himself died in 1930), is notorious for the loyalty that she has continued to express toward the family friend Wolf, as Hitler was known to her and her children.

Hitler’s passion for Wagner’s works was, it seems, a genuine one. He was a regular visitor to the Bayreuth festival where Winifred Wagner entertained him and used the opportunity to introduce her friends, including Oswald Spengler (not, incidentally, a wholly successful encounter). It was at Bayreuth at the end of a performance of Siegfried in July 1936 that Hitler authorized German intervention on the side of Franco in the Spanish civil war. The music and the text of Wagner’s operas became absorbed in the Nazi ideology: Hans Sachs’s appeal for the maintenance of the purity of German art against “welschen Dunst mit welschen: Tand” or Lohengrin’s assurance that the hordes from the East would never set feet on German soil all suggested attitudes characteristic of the Third Reich. The music itself became identified with the regime: Siegfried’s Funeral March was played on the radio when the news of Stalingrad and other German defeats was announced and became as closely associated with the idea of German disasters as the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were with the hope of Allied victory. We still need an adequate explanation of the way in which Hitler’s belief that he was building a Thousand Year Reich, in which the architecture of Berlin would rival that of ancient Rome and magnificent roads traverse the empire from the Atlantic to the Urals, was combined with the conviction of inevitable doom which is the message of the Ring.

For the most part, this collection of essays is limited to the period of the immediate impact of Wagner’s ideas in his own lifetime and for some fifteen years after his death in 1883. This means that there is not a great deal either about the more sinister aspects of Wagner’s legacy or about the reinterpretations of his work inaugurated by his grandsons since the Second World War. However, the volume provides a valuable introduction to an important, though hardly neglected, aspect of European cultural history during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

David C. Large’s essay looks at Wagner’s Bayreuth disciples, the people who were responsible for transmitting all that was narrowest and most distasteful in Wagnerism. That Wagner’s legacy was given a mean, nationalist, and reactionary interpretation was ensured by such men as Hans von Wolzogen (on whose grave Hitler was to place flowers), the art historian Henry Thode, the husband of Cosima’s daughter by Hans von Bülow, who was determined to claim Wagner for a German tradition going back to Dürer and to make him a champion of a rigorous antimodernism, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, husband of Wagner’s daughter Eva, and the author of the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, one of the best sellers of the völkisch movement. At the same time Cosima was ensuring that no new theatrical ideas impinged on the production of the operas at Bayreuth. David Large claims that “the exploitation of Wagner’s legacy during the Third Reich amounted to an intellectual abuse.” So it did; but it was an abuse to which Wagner had laid himself open and which his immediate disciples positively invited.

Wagner’s influence, like that of Nietzsche, spread very widely and had divergent and contradictory effects. William Weber, whose earlier book Music and the Middle Class was a pioneering study in the social history of concert-giving, here brings out very well the extent to which, whatever their political implications, Wagner’s artistic ideas were truly revolutionary, and he shows that his philosophy was always ultimately subordinated to his theatrical aims.

Wagner was bringing to the opera house a new kind of serious respect for music such as had already in some cities found its place in the concert hall. Wagner’s contempt for “Virtuosentum und Dilettantismus” and the commercialization of the contemporary opera house, embodied for him, rather unjustly, in the work of Rossini, led logically to the conception of his last work Parsifal as a Bühnenweihfestspiel—part religious rite, part stage performance—to be produced only under ideal conditions and only at Bayreuth, in performances at which the tradition was soon established that there should be no applause. Indeed, the Russian designer Alexander Benois remarked that Wagner’s insistence on dimming the house lights and excluding late-comers attracted more attention than the music itself. Wagner’s perfectionism (as well as, it must be admitted, his own personal taste for luxury in his daily life) led to his incessant demands for money and the extraordinary risks that he took in starting the Bayreuth festival as an act of faith in his own artistic ideals. (It took the administrative ability, dedication, and tenacity of Cosima to place the finances of Bayreuth on something like a sound basis after the Master’s death.)

If Wagner could not get what he wanted he would not settle for the second best. During the 1870s, when no further subsidies could be expected from the unfortunate King Ludwig II and when the German emperor William I had shown what his priorities were by leaving for military maneuvers in the middle of the Ring (thus turning Wagner into an antimilitarist), Wagner was talking of emigrating to Minnesota where the German-American inhabitants were, he believed, of the purest German stock and would be eager to support a new and better festival theater. After reading Weber’s and Lange’s essays one can see how deeply Wagner affected the standards of performance and behavior in the theaters and opera houses not only of Germany in his own day but also of Europe and America in the twentieth century.

Again as in the case of Nietzsche, people found in Wagner what they were looking for. In Britain and America, as Anne Dzamba Sessa points out, Wagner seemed to symbolize the revolt against a desiccated positivism, and “worshipping at the shrine of St. Wagner” (the phrase is Mark Twain’s) became a substitute for religion. A Harvard theologian could claim that the function of Wagner’s music dramas was “an exalted and even a sacred one,” while provincial English musicians dreamed of founding their own equivalent of Bayreuth at Glastonbury for the performance of the works of Rutland Boughton. In France, on the other hand, Wagner’s influence on literature was as important as his impact on music; and the Revue wagnérienne, published from 1885 to 1888, not only provided information for the fans about forthcoming performances of Wagner’s work, but also came to be the organ of the new poetic ideas of the Symbolists led by Mallarmé, followers of “le dieu Richard Wagner irradiant un sacre.”

As might be expected in a country that had reacted rapidly and violently to each successive artistic and ideological current from the West, Wagnerism in Russia, the subject of a most interesting essay by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, had deep and contradictory effects. Wagner’s aesthetic ideas had great influence on the theatrical conceptions of Diaghilev and the Russian ballet. The sensual, mystical pseudo-Christianity of Parsifal found an echo in the music of Scriabin and the work of many of the Symbolist poets, while to others, notably Alexander Blok, Wagner remained the revolutionary whose pamphlet Art and Revolution was republished in 1918 with an introduction by Lunacharsky, commissar for education and the arts in the Bolshevik government. Blok coupled Art and Revolution with the Communist Manifesto, Rosenthal writes, as “two emanations of the revolutionary storm that blew over Europe in 1848–1849.” Even if Wagner had been appropriated by the German nationalists—and Blok maintained that during World War I the Kaiser’s automobile horn played Wotan’s spear motive—“Wagner still lives and is always new. When revolution begins to sound in the air, Wagner’s art resounds in response.”

The reception of Wagner in Italy was less enthusiastic. Indeed, as Marion S. Miller points out in her important, original contribution to this collection, Mazzini in his Filosofia della musica had already in 1836 foreshadowed some of Wagner’s ideas about regeneration through opera and its social mission. (Readers of John Rosselli’s admirable The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi* will realize how farfetched a notion this must have seemed at the time.) But enthusiasm for Wagner’s music was limited: the first performance of a Wagner opera did not take place until 1871, and even then a ballet by Ponchielli was inserted into Lohengrin. Verdi, it is true, was overwhelmed by Tristan: “Before this gigantic work, I stand in wonder and terror.” The composer and librettist Boito explicitly emulated Wagner in his opera Mefistofele (some people might think rather unsuccessfully). And it was natural that Gabriele D’Annunzio should have seen in Wagner a kindred spirit. (Ms. Miller writes of “a comradeship in heroic egoism.”) But in other circles the reaction was less warm. Italian nationalism was being defined in these years by its emancipation from foreign, and especially German, influences.

In 1873 the Chamber of Deputies debated the impact of Wagner on Italian music schools, and some conservatives called for strict government control to exclude it. In January 1914 the Futurist Marinetti published his Down with the Tango and Parsifal, two of the decadent foreign trends endangering Italy’s national mission. By the time of Italy’s entry into World War I in 1915, Wagnerism was part of what Italy was fighting against, and Wagner was banned in Italy for the duration of the war, as he was in Britain and the United States. In France the aged composer Camille Saint-Saëns declared that he was prepared to make the sacrifice involved in not hearing any more Wagner, because “the works of Wagner were the means employed by Germany to conquer souls.”

The violence of these reactions shows how insidious and seductive as well as frightening the influence of Wagner was seen to be. No other composer has provoked comparable reactions; and it is good to have these essays to show how many-sided and widespread Wagner’s influence was. Nor has it stopped. Wagner remains our contemporary, and each generation interprets his work to suit its own preoccupations. After the Nazi reading of the text we have seen interpretations drawing on Freud and, most convincingly, on Jung. After a Marxist Ring, perhaps we may now expect one with a message for the Green party, in which the return of the Ring to the Rhine Maidens and the engulfing of Valhalla in the river’s flood show the restoration of the ecological balance. And any work that shows the inability even of gods to escape their doom is bound still to strike a justified terror in our hearts.

  1. *

    Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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