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Wagner & Politics


How should we think about Wagner? Those who are troubled by that question, as I am, presumably think that as an artist he is worth being troubled about: that his works, or some of them, are demanding, inviting, seductive, powerful. Not everyone who cares about music need share that opinion. The relation of Wagner to the history of Western music and to the formation of a taste is not the same as that of, say, Bach or Mozart: he is not in the same way necessary. His works are indeed necessary to explaining its more recent history, very obviously so, but they are not in the same way a necessary part of a taste for Western music. Indeed, it is possible for a serious music lover to hate them—but that is not really the main point, since hatred can be a reaction to their power, in particular because of the peculiarities I shall be discussing. So Thomas Mann referred to Nietzsche’s “immortal critique of Wagner, which I have always taken to be a panegyric in reverse, another form of eulogy.”1

You can have a well-formed, deep relation to Western music while passing Wagner’s works by, finding them boring or not to your taste. But it is clear, equally, that a passionate engagement with these works is not a mistake or a misunderstanding. They are amazing, and there is much to engage with. It is no accident not only that Wagner is voluminously discussed but that immense efforts, expenditure, and imagination are still devoted to producing these pieces.

As well as the troubled and the bored and the revealingly hostile, there has notoriously been a further party, of the utterly devoted, and perhaps there still is. Being devoted does not necessarily mean being uncritical, but if the members of this party are critical, it is on the very local basis that the Master did not always live up to his own standards. This party has a question to answer. No one can deny that some of Wagner’s own attitudes are ethically and politically disturbing, some of them very deeply so. I mean that they are disturbing to us; and by that, I mean that they are rightly found disturbing by people who have seen the crimes and catastrophes of the twentieth century. We do certainly have to understand his attitudes in the context of his time, taking into account the options and ideological contrasts that were available then. We need to understand what his attitudes meant. But, equally, we have to take into account what they have come to mean.

When it is said that “we have” to take such things into account, one thing this means is that we have no alternative if we are not to be misunderstood. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing (V.iv.38), Claudio says, “I’ll hold my mind [i.e., stick to my intention to marry her], were she an Ethiope.” In the Norton Shakespeare, the editor, Stephen Greenblatt, gives an explanation: “In other words, black and therefore, according to the Elizabethan racist stereotype, ugly.”2 A review in the London Sunday Times criticized him for this on grounds of excessive political correctness. But as Greenblatt reasonably said in an interview, would they have actually preferred it if he had said “black and therefore ugly”? In Wagner’s case, “we have no alternative” does mean this, but it means something else as well: that we have no alternative to taking into account his attitudes and what they have come to mean if we are to experience and reflect on these works at the depth they demand—more precisely, if we are to understand them at the level needed for them to become a significant part of our experience. (Indeed, so far as staging is concerned, we have to take these things into account if we are to put these works on at all, and this is a point I shall come back to.)

If we try to understand as a genuine historical question what range of opinions and attitudes were available in Wagner’s world—“where he was” on various matters—we find that in some cases, he was already in a pretty bad place. Above all, and most notoriously, there is his anti-Semitism. His articles Das Judentum in der Musik, attacking Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn and, generally, the artistic impotence of Jews, did not make a big stir when they were first published under a pseudonym in 1850. The document had considerably more effect when he reissued it under his own name in 1869, with additions in an even sharper tone and with more directly racist implications (“so far from getting rid of his errors,” Liszt said, “he has made it worse”). The racist emphasis, influenced by Gobineau, was prominent in other publications of his last years. It has reasonably been claimed that Wagner by his own writings contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1880s, in particular by helping to make it culturally respectable.3

Moreover, it was not only during the Nazi time, through the friendship of Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred, with Hitler, that the Bayreuth festival, which Wagner founded in 1876, became associated with the most repellent ideas. The house journal, the Bayreuther Blätter, was founded in 1878, when Wagner was still alive, by an acolyte, Hans von Wolzogen, who, as a historian of the festival has put it,

used the journal as an ideological instrument to propagate a racist, anti-Semitic, chauvinistic, xenophobic and anti-democratic ideology. It would be difficult to find anywhere in the Western world in the late nineteenth century, even in the darkest corner of the French right, a publication so poisonous, so hate-filled, so spiritually demented.4

In some other cases, the attitudes that Wagner held were capable of taking more benign forms, but Wagner’s versions were not among them. This seems to be true of the particularly chauvinist form that he gave to the idea that there should be a German art.5 Thomas Mann considered this in his famous essay (from which I have already quoted) “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” which, given as a lecture in 1933, led directly to his exile from Germany, and which is, along with some of Nietzsche’s thoughts, still the most helpful reflection that I know on these questions.6 Mann pointed out, using a distinction made by a Swedish writer, that Wagner’s aspiration was for a German art in the sense of nationale Kunst rather than Volkskunst—that is to say, the nationalism was a matter of the destiny and political significance of German art, not of its materials.

This in itself may seem an entirely intelligible, even innocent or laudable nineteenth-century ambition. But then we have to recall that the problem of a distinctively German art, and its relation to a self-conscious artist working in a broader European tradition, had been a preoccupation of German thought since at least the late eighteenth century. Above all it had been a recurrent concern to Goethe, with regard to the German language, its traditions of writing, the public for that writing, the self-conscious cultivation or rejection of differences from the rest of Europe, the relation of German art to various possible political regimes in the German-speaking states, and so on. Indeed, in his writings on these subjects Wagner, unsurprisingly, praises Goethe and Schiller.

Now the German world in the 1860s was certainly a very different place from what it had been in 1800. Yet it is still relevant to point out that in Goethe’s case the question of how to achieve a distinctively German art was a problem for him, a problem to which he responded in ways that honored its complexity; whereas for Wagner it was, of course, a problem to which, at any given stage of his career, he knew the answer, as against the traitors and enemies who took a different view. This absence of the Goethean spirit, not just in a form anachronistic by the 1860s, but in any form at all, is something I shall come back to when we confront the impression, not lightly to be dismissed, that for all their wonders and power there is an all-consuming assertiveness in Wagner’s works which can be disgusting. 7

I have moved directly from talking about Wagner’s personal attitudes, as expressed in his writings, to talking about the character of his work. That is not an oversight; the problem is that the two cannot entirely be separated. It is possible that artists with politically disturbing views could produce works that are not politically disturbing. There are without doubt several things wrong with Hans Pfitzner’s remarkable opera Palestrina (first produced in 1917), such as its heavy-handed attempt to present the Council of Trent in the style of Die Meistersinger; but they do not express what was wrong with Pfitzner himself, whose conservative and nationalist views were congenial enough to the Nazis that (to his great resentment) he was required to undergo denazification after World War II. Wagner’s relation to his works was not like this. That is obvious now and has been obvious since they were created, but we shall have to ask what it is about the works that makes this so.

What is troubling is that the problems raised by his repellent attitudes, on the one hand, and the disturbing power of his work on the other, cannot be solved by a distinction between “the work” and “the man.” Or rather, we cannot immediately call on that distinction to solve them. The problems that matter of course concern the work: it is only the fact that we want to take the work seriously that forces us to confront Wagner at all. But it does indeed force us to confront him, because Wagner’s is a case in which, if we are to deal adequately with the work and its power, we have to take into account the attitudes of the man and what they have come to mean. I do not mean that his views, even his views of his own works, necessarily determine our interpretation of them. His works are independent, in varying degrees, from the outlook expressed in what he wrote around and about them, but we have to ask in every case how far they are independent of it, and in what ways. We need to understand, in particular, how far what moves us in the work may be connected with what frightens and repels us in his attitudes.

Some contemporary approaches to the work, though they are very vocal about Wagner’s attitudes, fail to grasp that this is the question, and fall short of what we need in order to think about it. A lot of writing about Wagner in the last thirty years conceives the problem as that of revealing a hidden scandal; they try to trace the ways in which the attitudes have marked the works.8 These writers spend a lot of effort, for instance, in trying to find signs of anti-Semitism in the operas themselves, claiming that the representations of Mime, Klingsor, Beckmesser, and other characters introduce Jewish stereotypes. I am not concerned with the question, still much disputed, of whether the attempts at decipherment of these characters are correct. Even if a nineteenth-century audience did not need as much help in recognizing such stereotypes as, seemingly, we do; even if Wagner consciously intended them (for which there is no direct evidence); the point is that these supposed signs are too trivial to help with the only question that can reasonably concern us. The only reason for worrying about Wagner’s works is that they are powerful and interesting. But if that is so, what difference would these signatures, these local coded messages, make?

  1. 1

    The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner” in Pro and Contra Wagner, translated by Allan Blunden (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 100. (In quotations from Mann, I have sometimes modified the translation.) Nietzsche’s attacks on Wagner certainly represent an ongoing deep fascination with him, but some of his remarks may also strike a chord with those who are less involved: “My objections to Wagner’s music are physiological objections. What’s the point of dressing them up in aesthetic formulae?”

  2. 2

    Norton, 1997.

  3. 3

    This is argued by Jens Malte Fischer in a helpful and admirably balanced new introduction to an edition of Wagner’s pamphlet, Richard Wagner und Das Judentum in der Musik: Eine kritische Dokumentation (Frankfurt am Main/Leipzig: Insel, 2000). For a review of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, see the article by Dieter Borchmeyer in A Wagner Handbook, edited by Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski and translated by John Deathridge (Harvard University Press, 1992).

  4. 4

    Frederic Spotts, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (Yale University Press, 1994), p. 84. According to Cosima’s diary, Wagner did once tell Wolzogen that he wanted the journal to strike a broad, idealistic note, and keep away from “specialities,” such as vegetarianism and agitation against the Jews. See Cosima Wagner, Die Tagebücher (Munich/Zürich: R. Piper, 1977), Vol. 2, p. 700; cited by Fischer, p. 118.

  5. 5

    His articles “German Art and German Politics” (first published anonymously in a newspaper in 1867, then in book form in 1868) can be “interpreted, at least in part, as a commentary on Die Meistersinger,” according to John Deathridge in The New Grove Wagner (Norton, 1984), pp. 52-53. I come back later to the question whether Meistersinger is itself expressly political.

  6. 6

    There is one significant qualification to be made: that neither in this essay, nor (yet more remarkably) in pieces written during and after the Second World War, did Mann, so far as I know, mention Wagner’s anti-Semitism.

  7. 7

    It was a “nameless presumptuousness” in wanting to have something to say about everything that Mann particularly had in mind when he said in a letter to Emil Preetorius of 1949 that “there is a lot of Hitler in Wagner.”

  8. 8

    For instance: Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (Harcourt Brace, 1968); Hartmut Zelinsky, in Richard Wagner: wie anti-semitisch darf ein Künstler sein? (Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 1978); Barry Millington, Wagner (Princeton University Press, 1984); Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (Yale University Press, 1992); Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (University of Nebraska Press, 1995). The idea goes back at least to Theodor Adorno, Versuch über Wagner, written in 1937- 1938, first published as a whole in 1952; English translation by Rodney Livingstone, In Search of Wagner (Verso, 1984.)

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