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.

The authoritative edition of My Life (as reedited in 1976) has now been issued in a much-needed new translation with notes identifying personalia, etc. Still needed is an edition with annotations, which would have to be extensive, checking Wagner’s account of the facts point by point with what can be learned about them objectively. In the absence of such correctives, caveat lector—who should also be warned about the diaries Cosima kept from 1869 to 1883. Their publication as two huge volumes in 1978 and 1980 attracted much interest. Viewed by some as a testament to a great love story, or at least as the basis of a promising seven-and-a-half-hour television miniseries, the diaries can also be viewed as a continuation, under joint auspices, of the polishing of Wagner’s image that had been begun years earlier by the composer himself. Redemption Through Love is only one of the leitmotifs sounded, as it seems artlessly, in the Gospel according to Cosima.


Martin Gregor-Dellin is a novelist, man of letters, and a specialist in the work of Thomas Mann, which seems to have drawn him to Wagner. As editor of the definitive My Life and also of Cosima’s diaries, he has been able to draw on much that is new for his biography. His is an elegant and entertaining book that wears its learning lightly. As has now become the rule in this genre, there is a certain amount of psychologizing: the infant Wagner’s peripatetic existence in war-torn Saxony, and the death of his father during his first year, are seen as contributing to a “mother complex” which affected both his later relations with women (no virgins) and his fetishistic attachment to silks. Deathridge for his part speaks of an “identity crisis” in response to the dead father and the live stepfather, the actor Ludwig Geyer, who may well have been Richard’s natural father. In Siegfried, of course, the hero kills a stepfather who is named Mime.

But basically Gregor-Dellin’s is an old-fashioned biography—a richly woven, no doubt slightly embroidered, ground-cloth fit for the greatest actors in the history of nineteenth-century Europe to strut their hour upon. There are virtuoso splashes of atmosphere, pages of diverting narrative, and not a few interjections by the author. He has a particularly sharp eye for the absurd scenes which Wagner’s hectic and ruthlessly tactless social life seems to have precipitated again and again.

Gregor-Dellin assumes an authorial tone of ironic detachment toward all his subjects, which is indeed sometimes reminiscent of Mann’s. In such a mood, he can react to one situation in a highly censorious way, and merely wryly to another which may perhaps appall the reader just as much. He preserves no illusions about Wagner’s devious, malicious, monomaniacal ways: “monstrous,” he calls them. At the same time, he does not conceal his admiration for the resilience, imaginativeness, self-assurance, and élan vital—Bernard Shaw’s life force—which Wagner also possessed to such an extraordinary degree. “A scoundrel and charmer he must have been such as one rarely meets,” Virgil Thomson once remarked, adding that while in effect he could take or leave Wagner’s music, what he “would like most of all is to have known the superb and fantastic Wagner himself.” Gregor-Dellin shares—and conveys—something of the same feeling.

Several of his most provocative chapters must be understood in connection with other recent Wagner biographies, in particular the main postwar item published in German. This was by Curt von Westernhagen, a nondescript scholar who started writing on Wagner during the 1930s. This shows up clearly enough in his postwar writings, which are shamelessly soft on Wagner; the 1979 English edition of his biography was, to put it gently, a miscalculation, especially since anyone in publishing should have known that Gregor-Dellin’s was due out (in Germany) in 1980. Gregor-Dellin seems to have set out to put the record straight on Wagner’s role in the 1849 Dresden uprising, and on his ideology as expressed in writings of 1849-1851 and 1878-1883. How far has he been successful in this?

Let us take, inevitably, the subject of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Judaism in Music of 1850 is described as an eruption of irrational rage at the current musical scene, fed by Wagner’s envy of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, which turned into an alarmingly explicit but otherwise typical chauvinistic product of Young Hegelian and Young German radicalism. The Jew as banker: in the current Wagner literature one reads almost as much about Karl Marx’s anti-Semitism in the Vormärz period as about Wagner’s. Gregor-Dellin says the reason Wagner needed the Jews to vilify was that they alone could help him denounce contemporary music.

But while Judaism in Music was already ominous enough, there was much worse to come. In Know Yourself, Heroism and Christianity, and other writings of 1879-1883, the themes of the 1850 tract—the Jews’ repugnant appearance, speech, and song, their inexpressiveness, lovelessness, and alienation from German culture—all crystallized around a doctrine of racial purity which before was only implicit. Gregor-Dellin can write about Wagner’s redemptive “religion in disguise” without seeing, or saying, that Wagner needed the Jews because they alone came to represent that from which society had to be redeemed. Art alone, it seems, would never do it; purification of the blood was a prerequisite to regeneration of the spirit (that was one reason for the incest motif in the Ring and also, I am afraid, for Klingsor’s self-castration in Parsifal). Miscegenation, above all, had to be rooted out; it was the Jews’ racial status that counted, not their financial power—let alone their musical one. Wagner knew he had won the musical battle. But modern German society disappointed him more and more, notably by its refusal to embrace Wagnerism. As he grew more and more consumed by his role as its redeemer, racial purity became his obsession.

This is not an issue that can be defused by taking note of Wagner’s association with Jews almost to the day of his death—his pitiless manipulation of the conductor Hermann Levi, for example, which is mordantly discussed by Adorno, or even what seems to have been a certain affection for the pianist Carl Tausig. Wagnerism attracted Jews—Elaine Brody provides an astonishing list in one of the Opera Quarterly articles—like flypaper. Nor will it be defused by Wagner’s coolness to the official political anti-Semitic movement of the 1870s which was promulgated by Bernhard Förster and others. The historian Paul Lawrence Rose has argued convincingly, I think, that Wagner was bound to distrust Förster’s initiative because it was narrowly linked with Prussian statehood, with conservatism and bourgeois philistinism. Political anti-Semitism seemed to him a debasement of the true utopian anti-Semitism which he had nurtured since his overtly revolutionary days, and which he was glad to meet with again in recent racist literature by aging Young Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer and Wilhelm Marr. Wagner, who had been prepared to co-opt the 1848 revolution for his own ends, was not going to see what Rose calls his “noble anti-Semitism” co-opted by the mere politicians of an unredeemed Germany. That Germany had very nearly betrayed Bayreuth.2

Even Deathridge, I find, handles all this somewhat elliptically, though his biography in The New Grove Wagner is written from a standpoint that is safely to the left of center. Deathridge too is writing contra Westernhagen, for if you look at the actual New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musiciansof 1980, you will find under “Wagner” in volume 20 another biographical white-wash by that much-translated author. Deathridge’s biography in The New Grove Wagner is a substitution. It is also, I have to say, a pretty chilly piece of work. Mann wrote about the “Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner,” but one would not guess much about either from this essay. I noticed only one unambiguously favorable adjective (Parsifal is “sublime”), and Deathridge spends his next paragraph taking it back.

Shades of Ernest Newman. It is quite a change to read an English Wagner specialist who takes a hard, cold line with the Master.


What does one do with Wagner’s racist and other obnoxious writings? One can attempt to reclaim them, as was done not so many years ago by the English philosopher Bryan Magee and the American professor of medicine L. J. Rather.3 Or one can bury them. In a welcome new translation of Three Wagner Essays (“‘Music of the Future’,” “On Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” and “On Conducting”), Robert L. Jacobs simply cuts out what he calls the unpleasant, unbalanced bits of the latter. (A veteran Wagnerian, he knows better than to start an argument by calling them extraneous.) “On Conducting” appears with its unpleasantness intact in the attractive pocket Jubiläumsausgabe of Wagner’s poetry and prose issued by the Insel Verlag—an edition that includes some hard-to-find early opera drafts; but Judaism in Music and A Capitulation are excluded because the editor says he is not doing a complete edition and other writings are more important. There is no rule that a ten-volume edition has to be a representative edition, I suppose. Questionable on other grounds is the (unacknowledged) cutting of about 75,000 words of the original book by Gregor-Dellin at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, though this was reportedly done with the author’s agreement.


Everyone accepts that the Ring does not succeed as a total work of art—the Wagnerians who see it as a profound and fascinating “problem” work (like Hamlet and Faust, according to Deryck Cooke), and the rest of us who will tolerate it only in evening-, act-, or scene-length segments. Everyone also accepts it as Wagner’s Hauptstück, and this for many reasons beyond its sheer scope and ambition. The book that Bernard Shaw ironically entitled The Perfect Wagnerite is a book about the Ring.

“The forging of the Ring,” as Westernhagen calls it, has been traced many times, most recently in Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s Tétralogies. Nattiez is a Canadian music theorist who has attracted attention for his attempts to develop a semiology of music; but there is not much semiology in the present book, and its semantic undertaking is hardly subtle. By means of a close analysis of the internal development of the Ring over its twenty-six-year gestation period, Nattiez seeks to show that the final result is at best confused, at worst meaningless. All the more reason, therefore, for the stage director of a modern production—he is thinking of Patrice Chéreau—to supply meanings of his own.

Yet even Nattiez fails to take account of external factors that led to the ultimate confusion. They were Wagnerian factors. There was a great pause in the Ring project: after six years of mulling over the story and the poem, and after four more years of intense, enormously fruitful work on the music, Wagner abandoned it in the middle of the third opera, Siegfried. This was in 1857.

Why? Whole books have been written about the Ring and even about Siegfried without suggesting what was I am sure the deepest reason: misgivings about the outcome which Wagner dared not admit to anyone. For he could not abandon Wagnerism, and the Ring was central to Wagnerism. A composer who had written Lohengrin just before having to flee Germany and did not get to hear it all until 1861 had learned the hard way to wait. In the late 1860s he schemed and lied with at least some success to prevent Ludwig from producing the early Ring operas singly at Munich; he wanted them presented as a tetralogy in their own special shrine or not at all. Only when that shrine became a real prospect did he resume composition of the Ring, completing it in time for the opening celebration.

The reason the Ring was completed was that Bayreuth had become a reality—and its completion was less a testimony to Wagner’s artistic conscience than to his commitment to Wagnerism. Wagnerians such as Cooke always try to dismiss The Perfect Wagnerite as a onesided political reading of the Ring, but Shaw did more than characterize the end of the tetralogy as—inevitably, in the historical situation—a political or ideological impasse. He also characterized it as an artistic sell-out, which he saw as less than inevitable, in that the composer retreated to musical and dramatic ideals he had campaigned against for years and long since abandoned in his own work.

Not inevitable, but certainly understandable. Wagner was facing musical and dramatic material that he had outgrown by twenty years and more. Between 1857 and 1869 he had written Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger and his style had of course matured very significantly; but he was stuck with his old leitmotifs. One must indeed admire the skill with which he managed to transform some of them to suit his astonishingly sleek new developmental style—that “art of transition,” as he called it, which in Götterdämmerung sometimes sounds like ripe Richard Strauss. But the discrepancy between the musical process and the crudeness of some of the themes—the Ride of the Valkyries theme, for example, goes all the way back to those 1850 sketches—has always been glaringly obvious. And Wagner could make use of that same skill to transform a merely stupid theme (Siegfried’s Horn Call) into a portentously vulgar one (Siegfried the Hero).

Meanwhile dramatic unity presented him with insuperable problems both of form and content. What was strange but innovative about the Siegfrieds Tod poem of 1848 was the way the basic action was intercalated with scenes referring to the gods who never appear (the Norns scene, the embassy to Brünnhilde begging her to give up the Ring, etc.). These scenes, the seed of the work’s multiplication, led ultimately to the best of the Ring as we now have it. Wagner wrote one of his greatest scenes after the “pause”—Siegfried III, 1, the scene with Erda in which Wotan finally accepts his renunciation. But central to the tetralogy’s final poem (as to the saga material from which it drew) is the unedifying tale, so hard to make edifying, of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s embroilment with the Gibichungs. In plot, tone, and form, the scenes that embody this recall not only Lohengrin but also the operatic style that lay behind Lohengrin, the hated grand-opera style of Meyerbeer. Rewriting the Siegfrieds Tod poem as Götterdämmerung, Wagner did what he could to “de-Lohengrinize” it, in Nattiez’s term, but he could not do much, or anyhow would not. Thus writing the music entailed employing all those traditional operatic forms that so disgusted Shaw—love duets, trios of vengeance, choruses of vassals, and the like. Wagner’s own probable self-disgust about this may have been one reason why he reissued Judaism in Music at just this time, causing a great and wholly unnecessary scandal.

As to dramatic content: it is puzzling that even in 1848 so experienced a theatrical craftsman as Wagner should have contemplated a “grand heroic opera”—his term for Siegfrieds Tod—in which the hero is much of the time under the influence of a potion that makes him act unheroically. Or was this a projection of Wagner’s utter confusion about the idea of heroism in the Ring? Mankind’s redeemer must be free of the gods’ guilt, fully confident of his own vitality, therefore fearless, therefore innocent, therefore vulnerable to the Gibichungs’ wiles. The result is a hero who has nothing to strive against. Even in the famous place in Siegfried where he breaks through fire and breastplate to Brünnhilde, he experiences no more than the briefest spasm of fear (a hero who learns fear only to forget it again, as Adorno remarks). At Siegfried’s death, Wagner’s music has him recapturing that great shared love with Brünnhilde which is to redeem mankind; it is Siegfried’s one conscious and sympathetic, hence perhaps “heroic,” moment. Against it one has to set the assault on Brünnhilde and all the other scenes showing the drugged hero as recidivist. This is impossible dramaturgy.

Also dramatically debilitating, of course, was Wagner’s vacillation about the ending. The Ring bore the full brunt of Wagner’s egregious conversion from the philosophy of Feuerbach to that of Schopenhauer, the subject of so much tedious commentary including now that of Nattiez. Brünnhilde’s immolation, originally a joyous negation of the ego in the spirit of universal love, was reinterpreted so as to match the decisive shift in focus from Siegfried the redeemer of mankind to Wotan the renouncer of the Will. But Wotan does not even appear in the last opera, Götterdämmerung. Almost incredulously, Nattiez concludes that at this point Wagner didn’t know what to do with Siegfried any more. Indeed. Instead of having the immolated Brünnhilde transport the murdered hero to Valhalla, Wagner had her abandon both him and Valhalla, along with the Ring, to the waters of the Rhine.

Le Ring de Wagner a-t-il un sens?” wonders Nattiez. People have been asking (and answering) this question ever since Nietzsche’s “Do you understand it? You won’t catch me understanding it….” Wagner was wary, also: almost at the last minute, he cut out Brünnhilde’s much-altered final speech entirely, remarking airily that all would be made clear by the music alone. This from an operatic reformer who had insisted that music must be “impregnated” by words to express “poetic intent”—Frank W. Glass has written a whole book about this—and who always specified staging and gesture with the greatest care so that things indicated by words and by music would also be seen. (“Dr. Johnson kicking the stone to confute Berkeley is not more bent on common-sense concreteness than Wagner,” as Shaw remarked.) The meaning of the music in the immolation scene is no clearer than the meaning of the so-called Redemption Through Love leitmotif with which it culminates—a notorious bone of contention among exegetes. Deathridge has found out that Wagner himself once associated this leitmotif with “the glorification of Brünnhilde,” thus deflecting attention from who is being redeemed and how.

Unable to bring his Ring to a clear conclusion, Wagner simply left it open as a “problem.” Despair, necessity, cynicism, cunning, self-deception—it was in any case the supreme act of hype in a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of that function (among, of course, others). Once he had built a shrine for his redemptive religion, all that the new Aeschylus could come up with was a work of which the redemptive message was thoroughly obscure. Something less ambiguous was urgently needed. While only the Ring could have led to the creation of Bayreuth, only Parsifal could have saved it.

As for the “problem”: pondering the meaning of the cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung helps those so inclined to forget the meaninglessness of the middle. It has provided an inexhaustible field for explicators, both scholarly and amateur, and made the Ring a happy hunting ground for directors with confused ideas of their own to substitute for Wagner’s. Then there are the fisher kings and queens who find deep meanings for the Ring in the teeming waters of universal mythology and mythologized history. Lévi-Strauss has not fished them dry; more recently, L.J. Rather has come up with the Oedipus cycle, Michael Ewans with the Oresteia, and Nancy Benvenga with the saga of Frederick Barbarossa. If one includes this year’s Ring program booklets, Nancy Crookes weighs in at Bayreuth with the Tolkien tales and Christopher Fulkerson at Seattle with dragon lore (see Joseph Fontenrose’s Python). One awaits with sinking heart the appearance of the Jedi in the Ring literature. A Spielberg influence was noted by more than one observer at Bayreuth last summer.


Nattiez’s Tétralogies is a paean to the Bayreuth Ring production of eight years ago, by Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez. A stiff-necked little book by Uwe Faerber, The Bayreuth Festival’s Centenary Ring,4 mounted a systematic attack on this production, which has now been perpetuated on television. As between the two, I side with Faerber, but what I find most wonderful is the persistence of the Wagnerian hype which has propagated whole books and countless ephemera about this programmatically controversial and (as I think) basically foolish production. Chéreau’s direction incorporated a number of imaginative details together with a greater number of inept ones, all out of sync with the music, and what it conveyed as a whole was not the four levels of meaning that Nattiez tells us Chéreau was working for, not an “aesthetic of mélange,” but a half-playful, half-portentous mishmash. Boulez’s conducting often projected fascinating details of sonorous clarity, but it systematically eliminated the lushness and the “long line” that Wagner’s music absolutely needs to make its points.

The whole enterprise was less significant in itself than as a turning point in the history of postwar Bayreuth, a turning away from the style of its guiding genius, Wagner’s grandson Wieland. Wieland developed his own version of the extraordinary vision of Wagner staging created by Adolphe Appia, a vision that was articulated in Appia’s La mise en scène du drame wagnérien of 1895, and that indeed inspired the life work of this great pioneer of the modern theater. Costumes, action, and Appia’s abhorred “scene painting” were minimized, while intense effort was devoted to the actor’s quiet gesture and to effects of lighting. With a minimum of distraction away from the music, Wagner was “interiorized,” “essentialized” as never before. Almost all who witnessed Wieland’s best productions were overwhelmed by their beauty.

This belated vindication of Appia by the Wagner establishment was ironic enough, as the editor of the English edition of his little pamphlet reminds us. Not only had Appia received a snub from Bayreuth such as only Cosima could deliver, but when in his old age he finally got a chance to stage the Ring, in peaceful Switzerland, the second half had to be called off because of the audience’s hostility. But Appia’s style not only suited Wieland’s talents, it also accomplished a process of abstraction that was clearly understood at the time as altogether necessary if Bayreuth was to survive. Anything that might be interpreted or misinterpreted as Nazi—the brutality, the amoralism, the eschatology, even the gables of Nuremberg—was filtered away into a static play of son et lumière. Interiorization defused unwanted ideology. By suggesting an atomic holocaust at the end of his 1951 Ring, Wieland even contrived to suggest a source of cataclysm far from the Rhine.

Times change, passions fade, and in the late 1960s a new style of opera production came into fashion: vigorous, glamorous, provocative, expensive, gimmicky, and moderne. Bayreuth, which had mounted no fewer than three Rings in Wieland’s manner, decided that it was time to make the move. A German paperback of 1978 called Theaterarbeit an Wagners Ring5 documents Ring productions from 1970 to 1977 by eleven different directors, among them Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the best-known member of the new school; Wolfgang Wagner, who was responsible for the lackluster Bayreuth Ring of 1970; and Chéreau, who at the age of thirty-one received the improbable invitation to make his debut as a Wagner director with Bayreuth as his sandbox. Reading the statements of intent by these eleven directors, and looking at the nearly 300 postage-stampsized photographs of their work, helps put Chéreau (if not Boulez) into proper context.

In modern Bayreuth, the artistic Real-politik of Richard, Cosima, and Wieland survives at least on the level of superior public relations. A French Ring would make a bow to the spirit of the EEC and might be hoped to defuse Wagner’s notorious anti-Gallicism (though some of his best friends were French). It would make French intellectual waves around Wagner such as had not been seen since the days of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Catulle Mendès. For this, it seems, Bayreuth was prepared to put up with a Ring that was sometimes, as Nattiez admiringly says, not just skeptical about Wagner but actually “derisive.” It would not need to run for long. This year Bayreuth mounted an English Ring, with Sir Peter Hall and Sir Georg Solti, which was supposed to effect another major revolution in staging—a return to Wagner’s own Romantic stage traditions.

Something went wrong, and the result was not very Romantic or, it seems, very newsworthy. Nevertheless, the idea of neo-Romantic Wagner staging is definitely in the air, as witness the Metropolitan Opera’s 1980 Tannhäuser and another new Ring, at San Francisco—though that, alas, turns out to be inspired by Chéreau at least as much as by Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. And a guide book is ready and waiting—has just been issued—should neo-Romantically inclined directors and conductors want to make use of it. This is a scene-by-scene account of Wagner’s own musical and scenic instructions at rehearsals of the Ring prior to the 1876 premiere, recorded by one of his close musical associates, the conductor Heinrich Porges. It is a fascinating historical document, though as is the case with My Life and Cosima’s diaries, one would have to thread carefully through the Wagnerian hype to get out of it what one needs.

Nattiez argues vehemently against such “fidelity” to Wagner’s staging, as indeed to any aspect of his text.6 There is a real and not unfamiliar argument here, but Nattiez could hardly have chosen a shiftier ground for it. With Wagner’s Ring it is only too easy to undermine authorial intention, and with Chéreau’s, interpretational integrity or, indeed, competence. But of course what is so uncanny about the Chéreau-Boulez Ring is its suitability to the bastard medium to which the work has finally been transferred. “Chéreau’s staging abhors a vacuum,” writes Nattiez—“la sène de Chéreau a horreur du vide.” Busy, heterogeneous, anecdotal, and motley, it positively cried out for video. (Imagine sixteen hours of televised Wieland.) While this masterstroke of Wagnerian hype may well have been serendipitous, for the American market Bayreuth did not fail to press advantage and minimize derision. Reverential intermission features were added, presided over by Wagner’s granddaughter Friedelind.


Theodor W. Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner is an astonishing book, comparable only (as the author must surely have planned) to the late Wagner tracts by Nietzsche. It is a little like them in its conciseness, ambivalence, poetry, passion, and humor, in the violence of its attack on Wagner, and in a quality of incandescence and authority that drives the reader on whether he understands all, much, some, or very little of the argument. What makes for difficulty is not so much the Frankfurt School apparatus, which has by now become fairly familiar, at least in a general way, nor even the half-dozen musical excursuses of a technical nature. Rather it is Adorno’s Nietzschean self-indulgence in the matter of aphorisms, his well-known haughty assumption that his readers all know as much as he does, and his virtuoso development of what one might call, paraphrasing Wagner, the art of non sequitur.

Unlike Nietzsche, Adorno claims to stay strictly outside his book. Thus while his critique of Wagner (relieved, to be sure, by more than a few “twists of the dialectic”) is much more extensive than Nietzsche’s, it is ostensibly impersonal and indeed pales beside Adorno’s critique of the culture which produced Wagner, and of which Adorno wants to see him as the embodiment. This critique is less extensively presented; it is simply assumed. For Adorno, the complicity of art and ideology is certainly the central issue with Wagner, but the ideology in question is not Wagnerism—it is a Frankfurt School reading of the ideology of the postrevolutionary bourgeoisie at mid-century. So epic is his view of the historical process that even in the years between 1937 and 1939, when he wrote the book, he found little to say except in passing—though that little is said pungently enough—about Wagnerism and Nazism. Nazism too seems to have paled for him into a mere episode in the decline of bourgeois capitalism.

In Adorno’s deterministic music history, the nineteenth century falls between an era in which art and society are perfectly attuned and an era in which they are—or should be—wholly alienated. Suspended in history between Beethoven and Schoenberg, the barely submerged pylons of Adorno’s construction, Wagner is a profoundly conflicted, ambivalent, and hence inauthentic figure. This is equally true of his personality—“social character,” Adorno calls it in a masterly opening chapter—and of his art. Adorno sees the pessimism expressed there as the philosophy of the apostate rebel, the bourgeois revolutionary who nonetheless desperately identifies with the class he has betrayed. “In Wagner, the bourgeoisie dreams of its own destruction, conceiving it as its only road to salvation even though all it ever sees of the salvation is the destruction.” And later,

The category of redemption is stripped of its theological meaning, but endowed with the function of giving solace, without however acquiring any precise context. It is a homecoming without a home, eternal rest without Eternity, the mirage of peace without the underlying reality of a human being to enjoy it. The reification of life extends its domain even over death, since it ascribes to the dead the happiness it withholds from the living.

On the way to this cosmic rejection of the Wagnerian enterprise, Adorno has much to say about Wagner’s musical processes in specifically technical terms. Technical and sociological analyses merge brilliantly and recklessly. He writes most richly and admiringly about factors of sonority, harmony, and orchestration, categories that in Wagner’s music seem to him definitely to be progressive—on the way to Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance”—rather than regressive; though to turn the page in Adorno is always to run the risk of being upended by another of those dialectical twists. It is essentially by means of sonority that Wagner creates his “phantasmagoria,” most easily recognized in those famous passages where time seems to stand still in a mystical “mirage of eternity,” but extending ultimately to the whole of his music dramas. Like the commodity for Marx, music drama for Adorno is flawed by its very nearly successful attempt to hide the elaborate technique and division of labor involved in its production. This is Adorno’s way of articulating a problem many feel with the late Wagner works and their exceedingly high finish. Even Dahlhaus seems to be made a little uncomfortable by Die Meistersinger, perhaps the most prominent case in point.

In more general terms, the combination of words and music in music drama is (for Adorno) another case in point. Certainly he has little use for the ideas behind the words. On the status of Wagner as a major thinker, confidently upheld by certain of the contributors to Opera Quarterly—there are one or two in every crowd—Adorno is predictably silent. He is caustic about Wagner’s turn to myth, which he sees as a way of expelling history and actuality. One who felt Adorno’s influence was Wieland Wagner.

Adorno is quirky about Wagner’s leitmotifs, claiming with some vehemence that since they are basically “gestural” in quality they cannot also be “expressive.” Recognizable here is that pervasive antitheatrical prejudice, recently pinpointed by Jonas Barish,7 which is also an obvious factor in Nietzsche. But whether or not this claim is discounted, Adorno’s resistance to the whole leitmotif system is still useful as a counter-weight to writers like Cooke on the one hand (“The leitmotivs are miniature pictures,” Adorno insists, “and their supposed psychological variations involve only a change in lighting”) and Dahlhaus on the other (“instead of unfolding in a genuinely free and unconstrained manner, [Wagner’s musical continuity] has recourse to small-scale models and by stringing those together provides a substitute for true development”). I say this even though Adorno’s polemic based on the rigid Lorenzian interpretation of Wagner’s large forms is now badly dated, thanks largely to Dahlhaus (another who has been influenced by Adorno).

Following Adorno, one can see a typical ambivalence in the way leitmotifs work on characterization, too. The characters gain their psychological depth largely (though not entirely) from the subtle application of leitmotifs. At the same time, the density of leitmotif use gives the fatal impression that the dramatis personae are being completely manipulated by the dramatist, in much the same way that real-life persons of considerable psychological complexity were manipulated by the man. The one figure Wagner found he could not manipulate was Tristan in love, and this may be why for Adorno and many others Tristan und Isolde is the truest of the music dramas:

The feverish passages in Act III of Tristan contain that black, abrupt, jagged music which instead of underlining the vision [i.e., the phantasmagoria] unmasks it. Music, the most magical of all the arts, learns how to break the spell it casts over the characters. When Tristan curses love, this is more than the impotent sacrifice offered up by rapture to asceticism. It is the rebellion—futile though it may be—of the music against the iron laws that rule it….By voicing the fears of helpless people, it could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear.

Adorno’s Versuch is essential reading for anyone seriously involved with the composer, and now we can read it, thanks to a superior translation of a notoriously difficult author by Rodney Livingstone (who acknowledges help on musical questions from Eric Graebner, and who cannot be responsible for the foolish mistranslation of the original title). It is rather off-putting to meditate on the multitude of expendable words about Wagner that have rolled off English and American presses between the first appearance of Adorno’s 145 pages in German, in 1952, and this still little-noticed translation of three years ago.

This Issue

December 22, 1983