Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics
“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.