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Wagner & Politics

In effect, these writers reduce the problem of Wagner’s anti-Semitism (so far as the works are concerned) to these supposed traces, to the idea that, in one instance or another, Wagner is knowingly signaling it. This cannot help to deal with any deep anxieties caused by Wagner’s works. In fact, it serves to reconcile these writers’ admiration for them with their bad conscience about his attitudes, but at a painless and superficial level. They have externalized the problem, moving it from where it truly belongs.

We can take an analogy from a quite different work of Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice: these critics treat the threat, the dangerousness, of Wagner, as if it were the outbreak of cholera, which with luck you can signal and confine by whitewashing and disinfecting the walls. But our, and their, real problem with Wagner is not like this at all—rather, it is like Aschenbach’s problem with Tadzio. These critics do not accept at the right level the way in which Wagner is related to his works. They are saying, in effect, that there had better be something wrong with the works, and they have come up with a circumscribed and relatively painless way of identifying what this is.

In a well-known book Robert W. Gutman has written:

Unhappily, a proto-Nazism, expressed mainly through an unextinguishable loathing of the Jews, was one of Wagner’s principal leitmotifs, the venomous tendrils of anti-Semitism twining through his life and work. In his final years, his hatred reached out further to embrace those with black and yellow skins. This attitude cannot be shrugged off as an unfortunate whim or a minor flaw in a musical hero.

This underlines the point that the presence of some anti-Semitic signatures is not in itself enough: they are not going to show that anti-Semitism is “one of [the] principal leitmotifs” of Wagner’s work. The works will have to be more thoroughly polluted than that, and in his book Gutman gives interpretations to suggest that they are (though he does less to show that these interpretations are inescapable). But then he is thrown back to the question of why these thoroughly polluted works are supposed to be interesting or important to us. To this, his answer appeals simply to the music:

Yet Wagner survives, and primarily because he was a great musician. His ripe late-romantic style retains much of its allure…. A music of almost unparalleled eloquence and intimacy keeps his works on the stage.9

This is not an answer at all. Having refused to separate the man and the work, Gutman tries to separate the work and its music, an aim which can be seen to be failing already in the use of words such as “eloquence” and “intimacy,” and which is anyway peculiarly hopeless in the case of Wagner, who took unprecedented steps to unify musical and dramatic expression. If we end up with such an evasion, it is clear that we must start again.


Some modern productions of Wagner’s works have another way of trying to “externalize” the problems. It is a significant fact that we have seen in the opera house in recent years the coexistence of two kinds of radicalism. In cases to which it is appropriate, there is an increasing “authenticity” of orchestral and vocal performance, based on historical research; and at the same time there are productions and sets which display all degrees of rethinking and creativity up to the now notorious extremes of directorial whimsy—which themselves are more or less what has come to be expected.

These two developments might seem to go in opposite directions. It is true, of course, that they can conflict, as when the production makes it impossible for the singers to express what the music requires or invites them to express. (It is important that this should not be described as a conflict between music and drama; it is a conflict between the dramatic contribution of the music and the dramatic contribution of the staging.) But this is a matter of particular failures, not of what is intrinsic to the two kinds of radicalism. Even quite extreme versions of them, if they are put together in the right way, can produce a triumphant success (this was true of Peter Sellars’s recent production at Glyndebourne of Handel’s Theodora). They can combine to the same end. The musical performance tries to offer a closer approximation to the composer’s means of expression; the production offers a version of what this drama, these emotional relations, can mean in terms that make sense to us now—it tries to find visual and dramatic equivalences, which work for us, to the expressive content both of the words and of the music as that music is now presented to us. No theatrical presentation of the drama that was simply determined by historical research could possibly do that.

In fact, the idea of a theatrical production of an opera which is “authentic” in the sense in which musical performances can aim to be “authentic” (and that itself, of course, raises large questions which are not the concern here) seems to be virtually nonsensical. Critics who attack what they see as the extreme innovations of recent directors and call for “traditional” productions of the Ring cannot mean that we should be given what Wagner in 1876 in Bayreuth actually had—for one thing, we know what Wagner thought of what he got in 1876.10 But quite apart from that, since the question is one for us, of what we should do, even the most devoted intentionalist will have to ask not what Wagner wanted granted the resources he had, but what he would have wanted if he had had our resources; and that means of course, also, resources to present his works to audiences who have seen what we have seen (and not only on the stage). We are back, unsurprisingly, where we started, with the problems of staging Wagner’s works for us now. In pursuit of a truthful production, there is absolutely no alternative to re-creation.

The objection to some recent productions of Wagner is not that they are in a new idiom, but rather that they do not use that idiom to re-create. What some of them offer is mere comment. Unlike the decipherment of the supposed anti-Semitic signatures, which I have just considered, the ideologically critical treatment of the works in these productions is not minor or episodic. Their comments may be continuous, as when Wotan is throughout represented as a tycoon in the current Bayreuth production of the Ring. The problem arises if they are no more than comments, external to any response to the content of the works; in that case, they are like the supposed decipherment of anti-Semitic messages.11 Just as being given a decoding of Beckmesser’s vocal style as Jewish, even if it were correct, would do very little to help one understand or shape one’s reactions to Die Meistersinger, so a continuous subjoined ethical health warning added to the Ring—the mechanical injection into it of modern hate-figures, for instance—does not help one to face what the Ring, both for good and for bad, requires one to face.

We have to address the works and the problems they present on a larger scale. We have to ask: What general features of Wagner’s style contribute to the problems? I should like to suggest three, all of them characteristics that were mentioned by Thomas Mann.

Wagner shared with other nineteenth-century artists, notably Ibsen, the aim of uniting the mythic and the psychological. One might even suggest—this is my suggestion, not Mann’s—that in a certain sense Wagner is Ibsen inside out. Ibsen succeeded in some of his works in taking realistic bourgeois domestic drama and giving it the weight, the sense of necessity, that one can find in Sophocles; Wagner took myths and medieval epics and installed in them a psychology which is often that of bourgeois domestic drama. There is a basic problem with this enterprise, implicit in Walter Benjamin’s observation that the heroes of ancient tragedy or epic lack an inner life in a modern sense: many, if not all, of those ancient works gravely express a necessity that transcends biographical particularity. To reconcile this fact with a drama for which intensity almost unavoidably means intense subjectivity is a hard undertaking, as many nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists have found.

In fact, there are three levels involved. Besides the mythical or medieval materials, and the explicit motivations and situations of bourgeois drama, Wagner engages in depth psychological explorations which are expressed in words and music that go far beyond naturalistic drama. Wagner is most successful in reconciling the mythical and the psychological, so it seems to me, when it is this last element that prevails: when the subjective intensity is so extreme, solitary, and unrelated to citizenly or domestic life that in its own way it takes on an authority which is perhaps analogous to that of ancient tragedy. This is notably so in Parsifal and in Act III of Tristan. Elsewhere he succeeds because he can sustain an analogy with domestic drama which does not need to apologize for itself: an obvious example is Act I of Die Walküre.

Sometimes the analogies are imperfectly negotiated, and even the “arts of transition” of which Wagner was justly proud cannot hold the levels together. I personally think that this is true, at all three levels, of King Mark’s recriminations in Act II of Tristan. There is the problem that the view of the lovers from an everyday social perspective is less interesting at this point than what we have just experienced inside the world of night that they have entered; and in addition, for all the references to heroes and courtly honor, it is hard to dissociate Mark’s complaints from a bourgeois embarrassment, doubtless familiar to Wagner himself. In such cases there are problems for production, but with skill and luck they can be dealt with. However, there is one central case, the character of Siegfried, in which there is a real vacuum, a collapse at the heart of the work, and the very questionable conception of heroism which is associated with him has, I am going to suggest, a political significance.

Another, and very manifest, feature of the style is that Wagner really did break down in some ways the conventional distinction between the musical and the nonmusical. As Mann put it, while the old criticism that Wagner’s music is not really musical was absurd, nevertheless it was not entirely unintelligible: Wagner’s work does in a way fuse the musical and the literary. Mann says about the E-flat chord that starts Das Rheingold:

It was an acoustic thought: the thought of the beginning of all things. Music has been here pressed into service in an imperiously dilettante fashion in order to represent a mythical concept.12

  1. 9

    Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music, pp. xiv, xviii. It is ironical that Gutman drops a condescending sneer toward Wagner’s early biographers for their “Victorian delight in bringing ethical standards to bear on artistic affairs.”

  2. 10

    Wagner did very much like the Parsifal that he got in 1882, apart from a problem with the moving scenery. See Richard Wagner on Music and Drama, selected by Albert Goldman and Evert Sprinchorn. from translations by H. Ashton Ellis (University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 369-376. It would certainly look very strange now.

  3. 11

    It is perhaps worth saying that I do not think that this criticism applies to Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth production of the Ring, which is widely known on video (issued by Philips). Some of its inventions are gratuitous, but for the most part it embodies extremely sensitive responses to the drama.

  4. 12

    As Adorno pointed out (In Search of Wagner, p. 28), the idea that Wagner was a “dilettante” goes back to Nietzsche’s essay “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” written at the time of the first festival in 1876.

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