Archive for the ‘Wagner, Richard’ Category

by Dr. Michael Pratt

In 1849 Richard Wagner was at the median point of his life. He was 36 years old and had another 34 years to live. He had completed two operas virtually never performed (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot), and one opera rarely performed (Rienzi). He had also competed three operas which are considered early masterpieces (The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, and Lohengrin). Ahead of him were his seven mature masterpieces (the four parts of The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal).


Also occurring in 1849 was the Dresden uprising against the Saxon government in which Richard Wagner played a minor role. As a result, after the revolution was put down by Saxon and Prussian troops, an arrest warrant was issued for Wagner and he was forced to flee first to Paris and then to Zurich. While residing in Zurich he wrote a set of prose essays including Art and Revolution (1849), The Art-Work of the Future (1849),  Jewry in Music (1850), and Opera and Drama (1851). These essays were to have far reaching impact not only on musical thought, but on far-ranging intellectual, philosophical, and political theories of the time, and for several generations to come, culminating in Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.

These essays also served to help fill a musical void in which Wagner found himself during this period; a compositional drought extending from Lohengrin (1847) to Das Rhinegold (1854). In these essays Wagner attempted to define not only the direction in which he would proceed personally and artistically, but the direction in which he felt he was destined to lead German art into the future (and hence, all important world art, since German art was at the forefront, in his view). These essays, along with the writing of the poems comprising The Ring of the Nibeling constituted the bulk of Wagner’s output during this period.

In Art and Revolution Wagner “discussed the Athenian drama, which had brought together the arts of poetry, music, drama, dance, and design in a profound civic and religious expression.” [1]  In The Art-Work of the Future Wagner went on to describe “the Greek dramatic synthesis, after whose decline and disintegration, he asserted, the individual arts went their egoistic, separate ways; having in his time reached the limits of these divided routes, they longed to reunite, languishing for absorption, dissolution, and redemption in the universal art-work…” (ibid.)  In Jewry in Music Wagner wrote some of his most famous, influential, infamous and, ultimately, destructive prose describing “the Jew as a materialist, hindering the pure instincts of the German folk [saying] the Jew, therefore must be eliminated from German life.” (ibid.)  Of course, several generations later this almost came to pass in Germany, with Hitler citing Wagner as one of his main influences. In Opera and Drama Wagner outlines more specifically the format of his art-work of the future:

Opera and Drama postulated a compound formed of verse and its parallel vocal melody. The verse, the poet’s part, presenting the conceptual elements, would beget the musician’s vocal line; the latter was to interpret the text emotionally through artfully calculated juxtapositions of rhythm, accent, pitch, and key relationships. A resulting congruity of verse and musical phrase was to be further confirmed by an orchestra providing harmonic modulations and instrumental color appropriate to the stage situations . . . The orchestra with its many tongues would take over the traditional operatic tasks of the chorus. Throughout its length, the art-work was to be unified by a system of motifs, reiterating and stressing the conditioning forces of the drama. Toward this end certain musical phrases were to be abstracted from their positions under their correlative verses and repeated by voice or orchestra in later dramatic situations whenever ideas associated with the original words had any particular pertinence. (ibid.)

Wagner further postulated that the only proper subjects for German opera in the future were to be found in German mythology; hence, he logically proceeded with his monumental tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung.

In The Art-Work of the Future Wagner makes the argument that Beethoven carried all of the various elements of art to their limits with his latter symphonies, especially the Ninth Symphony. “This was the word which Beethoven set as crown upon the forehead of this tone-creation: and this word was: – “Freude!” (“Rejoice!”) With this word he cries to men: “Breast to breast; ye mortal millions! This one kiss to all the world! – And this Word will be the language of the Art-work of the future.” [2] [All capitalizations and punctuations are that of Wagner and Ellis.]  Wagner felt that Beethoven had led us to the doorstep of his art-work of the future. He fulfilled nature with his Pastoral Symphony, he evoked the very essence of dance with his Seventh  Symphony, and he took the final step and embraced drama with his Choral Symphony.

The Last Symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of Music from our own peculiar element into the realm of universal Art. It is the human Evangel of the art of the future. Beyond it no forward step is possible for upon it the perfect Art-work of the Future alone can follow the universal Drama to which Beethoven has forged for us the key. (ibid.)

Wagner conceived the next step as being an amalgam of all of the artistic elements: poetry, dance, music, drama, painting, sculpture, and design. He felt the outmoded forms of German opera must give way to what he called music-drama; thus embarking on this new form in The Ring of the Nibelung

Wagner saw himself as the successor to Beethoven and the absolute leader in the new wave of all things artistic and, above all, German. Wagner’s conceit in this concern knew no bounds. At first he drew legions of devoted followers who worshipped at his doorstep (in some cases, like Bruckner, almost literally). He attracted such thinkers as a young Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy he writes a “Preface to Richard Wagner” in which he says:

On the basis of this most significant way of understanding all aesthetics, which, taken seriously, marks the first beginning of aesthetics, Richard Wagner, to confirm its lasting truth, set his stamp, when he established in his Beethoven that music must be assessed on aesthetic principles entirely different from those for all fine arts and not at all according to the category of beauty, although an erroneous aesthetics, in the service of a misleading and degenerate art, has become accustomed to the idea of beauty asserting itself in the world of images and to demand from music an effect similar to the effect of plastic arts, namely, the arousal of satisfaction in beautiful forms. [3]

Nietzsche’s early devotion to Wagner (which later became a famous and public complete reversal of opinion) was intimately connected to Wagner’s thoughts in  The Art-Work of the Future which he pursued in his own writings:

 Through the character of Zarathustra [Also Sprach Zarathustra], Nietzsche insisted that his true audience had not yet been born. For both men [Wagner and Nietzsche], the value of art was not to be found in the dominant function that they believed it performed in contemporary society: that of diverting the public’s attention from the emptiness of modern life. Art’s value lay, rather, in its ability to reject the vacuous present that required such diversion, in the name of an almost prophetic invocation of a radically different future. [4]

Writing fifty years later Ernest Newman talks about the value of Wagner’s prose writings saying:

It is in pursuit of this vision that he ranges, in the tortuous pages of ‘Opera and Drama,’ through the heavens above and the earth beneath and the waters under the earth. Rid the huge book of all its superfluous matter and we arrive at last at the simple propositions that music-drama is a union of drama and music, that each must take something from and give something to the other, that the drama must be worthy and capable of moving us, and that the music must be a living organism, not an arbitrary collection of badly-jointed limbs with no flow of blood between them. It is this that the artist in him was driving him on to create, and it used the thinker in him merely for its own purposes of clarification. [5]

So where was Wagner going when he started writing his poem for The Ring of the Nibelung and subsequently began its musical composition based on the principles he had set forth in these prose writings? He maintained that he had written the last, great German opera in Lohengrin and the path to the future lay in a new direction. Gone was the chorus. Gone was the collection of separate pieces which were strung together to make an opera (the very word itself, of course, simply meaning a group of related works – thus opera being the plural for opus). In the future Wagner would call his works “music-dramas”. Actually it may have been more accurate to have called them “drama-musics” for in Wagner’s view the drama was the most important element. The music was what Wagner liked to describe as “continuous melody”. It was unceasing in pursuit of the drama of the moment. Gone were the pauses to applaud certain arias, dances, or scenes. The viewer, listener was expected to be continuously propelled along the lines of the drama until the very denouement of the music-drama. Gone was the florid, ornamental type of vocal writing which had become so very popular through opera composers such as Bellini and Donizetti. The understandability of the text was paramount. This is curious since many German-speaking people attending Wagner’s music-dramas wish that they could not understand the language being sung (the way non-German-speaking people experience Wagner’s operas) because Wagner’s poetry is written using such archaic and arcane language that it is almost not understandable by German speakers and tends to be distracting to the music.

The subject matter of the music-drama has its origins in German mythology, which Wagner felt was the only true source for his true, German art-work of the future. Another component to Wagner’s vision for the art-work of the future was the concept of the leitmotif. This, of course, was not a technique originated by Wagner, it had been heard earlier in certain works like Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, but Wagner elevated it to new heights of prominence, importance, and artistic usefulness.

Some of these principles were abandoned by Wagner in the future. For example, In Die Meistersinger he makes use of a chorus, which he had especially eschewed earlier. Since, however, this particular opera was written for completely altruistic reasons, Wagner set aside his “philosophical” viewpoints and wrote what he felt amounted to what would become a “popular hit” (Wagner needed money and set out to write a “little” work which could be produced by every small opera company in Germany and Europe, and thus make him a fortune in return; this “little” work turned out to be the longest work in the entire standard repertoire to date. Wagner never did anything in a small way). It is a testament to the genius of Wagner that he was able to take this short detour from composing The Ring of the Nibelung and compose first Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and then Tristan and Isolde, returning after many years to complete The Ring tetralogy (he set Siegfried aside after the end of Act II and came back many years later and much changed as a composer). The astute listener at a performance of Siegfried can discern subtle changes in Wagner’s style between Acts II and III (including the inclusion of the so-called “Siegfried Idyll” music which he had written for his wife, Cosima, as a birthday present).

The poet Wagner met the composer Wagner. When it came near time to prepare for the first presentation of his spectacular tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner expanded his vision even further and proceeded to scour Europe for singers who had the ability to change their style of singing and use a new method, devised by Wagner, which was necessary to portray vocally the huge musical scale he was writing. Next he found a location for what he envisioned to be a grand festival playhouse in which to pursue his dream. He chose Bayreuth, raised the necessary capital, and designed and constructed his Festspielhaus. In this unique performance venue he designed an orchestra pit which would be invisible to the audience (an ingenious creation). Wagner also designed the sets and the costumes, again all part of his master conception of the art-work of the future. Finally Wagner assembled the finest instrumental musicians he could find for his invisible orchestra (oddly enough containing a large number of Jewish musicians, Wagner being ever the pragmatist). When this monumental creation finally reached the stage in August of 1876, attracting an all-star audience from all over the world, Wagner had finally reached his dream of the art-work of the future in a technical display with such a tour de force that Wagner immediately became firmly established as the leading “thinker” of his day. All in all, Wagner became the poet, composer, entrepreneur, singing teacher, conductor, architect, set designer, costume designer, dramatist, director, and inventor (he invented an ingenious “steam curtain” at Bayreuth which was the envy of opera houses world-wide). Taken as a whole, The Ring of the Nibelung could be considered the greatest work of art in any medium by any artist who ever lived. George Bernard Shaw, in commenting on “The Music of the Future” (in reference to Wagner) said: “The ultimate success of Wagner was so prodigious that to his dazzled disciples it seemed that the age of what he called “absolute” music must be at an end, and the musical future destined to be an exclusively Wagnerian one inaugurated at Bayreuth. All great genius produce this illusion. Wagner did not begin a movement: he consummated it.” [6]

Such is the enigmatic nature of the gigantic story Wagner told in his tetralogy that it has been subject to widely divergent interpretations. Shaw probably brought forth the first widely divergent interpretation in his The Perfect Wagnerite where he attempted to make the case that the story of the myth is nothing but a gigantic allegory of the lower class against the middle class in an industrialized society. It is, in fact, nothing more than the socialist struggle to overcome capitalism (predating the communist revolution in Russia). Shaw writes:

There is a considerable portion of The Ring, especially the portraiture of our capitalistic industrial system from the socialist’s point of view in the slavery of the Nibelungs and the tyranny of Alberic, which is unmistakable, as it dramatizes that portion of human activity which lies well within the territory covered by our intellectual consciousness. All of this is concrete Home Office business, so to speak: its meaning was clear to Wagner as it is to us. (ibid.)

Subsequent stagings at Bayreuth in modern times have placed the tetralogy in contemporary dress and even in outer space. All this is to suggest the magnitude of Wagner’s creation and the scope of his vision that it has the ability to mean so much and exist so divergently for so many people for so long. Even more than thirty years after his death Wagner was still an imposing musical influence on the world:

At the time of Richard Wagner’s death in Venice (Feb. 13, 1883) the German stage was in a curious condition. Though his works had not prevailed everywhere, there could be no doubt as to their ultimate triumph, and the last opponents of the living master bowed willingly before the dead genius, whose gigantic spirit even after death defeated all resistance, entered the enemy’s land, and finally stormed the fortress of his antagonist Meyerbeer. Wagner’s works had swept everything that was not in conformity with them from the German stage, and many old operas, the delight of our fathers and grandfathers, disappeared, never to rise again, in the bottomless depths of the theater archives. [7]

After Wagner’s death many German composer’s tried to emulate his style and utilize his principles as set forth in The Art-Work of the Future. Some, like Karl Goldmark and Hans Pfitzner were somewhat successful during their lifetimes and are even sometimes performed today. At least one “Wagnerian-style” opera remains in the standard repertoire; Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. Humperdinck was Wagner’s musical assistant for the first performance of Parsifal in 1882 and was, thus, fully indoctrinated into the Wagner “way-of-thinking”. In a review of the Vienna production of Hansel and Gretel:

Eduard Hanslick shows that what was pointed out (and objected to) as “Wagnerian” also included the adventurous harmony, the many-stranded orchestral texture, and some allegedly direct evocations of Wagner’s work. In general, the score was considered too ponderous for its subject and the Witch’s Ride stigmatized as a ‘weak Ride of the Valkyries on broomsticks’. Moreover the ending of the opera was mocked by Hanslick as a compulsory Wagnerian element of “redemption” quite irrelevant to the story. Yet even Hanslick had to grant the opera a favorable verdict. In his notice he quoted from the current press a judgment by Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner naming Hansel and Gretel ‘the most significant German opera since Parsifal.’ [8]

Wagner’s Art-Work of the Future influence can be seen to extend beyond Germany’s borders into other musical realms which might at first seem to be a world apart from Wagner and Germany, such as France and Claude Debussy. Debussy’s crown jewel of the operatic world, Pelléas and Melisande, however, shows a great debt to Wagner:

However it is produced or performed, the external events that form the plot of Pelléas are only part of the point of the play. Maeterlinck’s symbolism, couched in seemingly insignificant dialogue, demands a response far removed from that required for conventional 19th-century opera. A more central question is the opera’s debt to Wagner. Whatever Debussy claimed, there are strongly Wagnerian elements in Pelléas, notably in the harmony, which reflects procedures found in Tristan and Parsifal, and in the system of leitmotifs portraying characters, themes and symbols. In an article in Le théâtre in 1902, Debussy himself wrote out motifs, identifying one of them as the ‘thème initiale de Mélisande’, and in a rare technical comment about his opera, he interestingly referred to his conscious treatment of Mélisande’s motif to emphasize the view he held of her character:

Notice that the motif which accompanies Mélisande is never altered. It comes back in the fifth act unchanged in every respect because in fact Mélisande always remains the same and dies without anyone – only old Arkel, perhaps – ever having understood her. [9]

 Wagner’s influence was so pervasive and lasted for so long that it led directly to the atrocities comitted by Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. In his book Hitler Speaks Herman Rauschning quotes Hitler as saying: “I recognize in Wagner my only predecessor . . . I regard him as a supreme prophetic figure.” [10] Hitler was a supreme Wagnerite. He regularly attended performances of Wagner music-dramas at Bayreauth and Nuremberg. His opinions on Aryanism, anti-Semitism, and vegetarianism were all sympathetic to Wagner’s views. Robert Jacobs, commenting on a passage in Hitler’s Mein Kampf says:

“to what Hitler considers to be the root cause of the first World War . . . Hitler describes in terms of a Wagnerian drama, thus: “It was the fantastic idea of a Nibelungen alliance with the decomposed body of the Hapsburg state the brought about Germany’s ruin.” The reference is plain: whereas Wagner’s Wotan destroyed himself by stealing and bartering the ill-gotten Nibelung hoard, Germany destroyed herself by allying herself with an empire ridden with Nibelung-Jews, Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats … (Ibid.)

Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner writes of Hitler: “Hitler’s passion for Wagner served to legitimize his own political mission, because he used Wagner’s conceptions of a national art form for the benefit of his personal ideology. German art was whatever the National Socialists proclaimed it to be.” [11] Indeed, Wagner’s influence on Hitler began occurring early in Hitler’s life. “Under a sketch he drew in 1912 of Young Siegfried, he appended the comment ‘Wagner’s work showed me for the first time what is the myth of blood.’ Blutmythos – war and racial purity already in 1912.” [12]

In modern times a great deal of time, money, and energy is being spent to erase the destructive legacy left by Adolph Hitler on Richard Wagner. While everything that Wagner wrote and said cannot be withdrawn or denied, and certainly nothing Hitler was responsible for can ever be forgiven or forgotten, still the musical creations of Richard Wagner must be viewed on their own for what they are: works of genius which are astounding in the art-form, their profundity, and their aesthetic worthfulness. In commenting on the modern performance of Wagner, Andreas Huyssen states:

Any discussion of monumentality and modernity inevitably brings to mind the work of Richard Wagner: The Ring, the aesthetics of the Gesamtkunstwerk [art-work of the future], the monumental artist, the history of the Bayreuth Festival. […] Whereas Germans have been laboring under the reproach of forgetting or repressing their historical past for decades since 1945, critics for some time now have articulated the reverse approach: inflation of memory. […] Currently there are several hundred plans in the works for Holocaust monuments or memorial sites all over Germany. […] {In the summer of 1995] the 84th Bayreuth Festival opened in July under the motto “redemption through love.” […] In today’s Germany, redemption through memory is the goal. […] German’s have eagerly appropriated the old Jewish saying “the secret of redemption is memory.”  [13]

Instead of trying to forget about the German atrocities of the 20th Century and their linkage to Richard Wagner, the modern approach is to do everything possible to not let the past be forgotten while at the same time extricating the monumental music-dramas of Richard Wagner, creations of his Art-Work of the Future, from this memory to allow them to continue (or in the case of the Israeli Philharmonic to begin) to be performed.

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and his Music (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 138.

[2] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future (1849), tr. William Ashton Ellis, 1895 (www.kessinger.net: Kessinger Publishing, 2005) 44-45.

[3] Friderich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 8.

[4] Gary Zabel, “Wagner and Nietzsche: On the Threshold of the Twentieth Century,” The Musical Times 131, 1770 (Aug. 1990): 407.

[5] Ernest Newman,Wagner’s Prose Works.” The Musical Times  54, 843 (May 1, 1913): 299.

 [6] George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite 1923 (New York, Dover Publications, 1967), 123.

[7] Edgar Istel and Janet Wylie, “German Opera since Richard Wagner,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2 (April, 1915): 260-290.

[8] Arthur Jacobs, Liner Notes from Hansel und Gretel. Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Jeffrey Tate, EMI 7 54022, 1990, (CD).

[9] Richard Langham Smith, “Pelleas and Melisande,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy, http://www.grovemusic.com (accessed April 28, 2007).

[10] Robert L. Jacobs, “Wagner’s Influence on Hitler,” Music & Letters Vol. 22, No, 1 (Jan., 1941): 81-83.

[11] Wolfgang Wagner, Acts: The Autobiography of Wolfgang Wagner (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), 26.

[12] Frederic Spotts, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 141.

[13] Andreas Huyssen, “Monumental Seduction,” New German Critique No. 69 (Autumn, 1996), 181-200. 

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