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,…

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