Wagner’s 200th Birthday: his politics, his music, and The Ring

By Sam Hawke

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Today, Richard Wagner turns 200 (although, notably, he’s been dead for over 130 years). On any reasonable view, Wagner was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. His operas are some of the most moving, absorbing, and rewarding of any artistic works. Whilst, as the philosopher Bernard Williams wrote, he was not “necessary” for the development of Western music in the manner, say, of Mozart, it’s very difficult to conceive of what much 19th and 20th century music – even art in general – would have been without him.

But, as Magee notes, “people quite often describe themselves as feeling guilty about enjoying Wagner.” His appropriation by the Nazi regime (both historical and perceived) and his revolting, truly shocking anti-semitism – in particular with his notorious and influential essay, ‘Jewishness in Music’ – have made many feel that their enjoyment of Wagner is subject to caveat. He has retained the status of a ‘controversial’ composer, whose position in the Western canon, not to mention German history, appears subject to continual ‘reassessment’.

This may be, to some extent, a function of deep and long-lasting misconceptions dogging the composer and his legacy. Magee claims, for instance, that there remain two different versions of Wagner in contemporary discussion. On the one hand, we have the Wagner known by those genuinely interested in his life and work. On the other, we have the Wagner about whom so much is written and said but who largely happens to be a socio-cultural construction. From Stephen Fry’s popular (but largely introspective) 2011 documentary to the mammoth backlog of biographical coverage, Wagner has become bigger than (even) himself. A largely self-sustaining pro- or anti-Wagner academic-industrial complex – I’m only a little joking here – has generated the competing images of a rabid proto-fascist and a sorceror-like ultra-composer of demonic power. As Bernard Williams writes, “[a] lot of writing about Wagner in the last thirty years conceives the problem as that of revealing a hidden scandal”. And so an arms race continues towards ever more shocking ‘revelations’ and their similarly strident dismissal. As for the music itself, it has been subject to what Nicolas Spice describes as “a ritual tradition of colourful hyperbole, unsupported for the most part by any explanation as to how exactly the music comes to have the power ascribed to it.”

An article in today’s Guardian could hardly do better in repeating these standard Wagner tropes. First, it’s claimed that Wagner is the third most written-about person after Jesus and Napoleon – false, however often it’s repeated (or, at least, I don’t think anyone’s ever bothered to test the claim’s asserted truth). Second, it’s claimed – as if the many ‘revelations’ about the composer were either novel or interesting – that “[h]e has been idealised and whitewashed for too long, but has been considered untouchable”. This is plainly untrue: there have been numerous books over the last few decades revealing the depth of his anti-Semitism and much more, many explicitly arguing that the works themselves are imbued with his foul bigotry. And third, his music is claimed to be “a drug” – a tedious Wagner stereotype (whose more eminent adherents include Leo Tolstoy) that attempts to claim some special, even occult power for his (really just remarkably brilliant) late-Romantic music.

These claims all tie in to a number of bogus, but perennial charges against the composer and his work. Accusations as to the music’s aggressive bombast, cheap sensationalism, and compositional chaos are, I think, ideological hangovers from an otherwise-forgotten era of music criticism. Nietzche, for one, claimed that Wagner – a “great corrupter of music” and “a master of hypnotic trickery” – “made music sick”. Wagner stretched, bent, and ultimately broke the rules of musical form and substance in his use of chromaticism, dissonance, and wildly disparate key changes, his abandonment of almost all formal operatic structures, and his overall commitment not to working out the supposedly logical, orderly implications of his original melodic and harmonic material but to take the music where the emotions, ideas, and the drama dictate for it to go. That this criticism existed is surely of some historical interest. But the fact that we now have Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Mahler, Strauss, and so many others, all now commonly-loved, almost conventional composers but whose experience of Wagner’s music made their own music possible, shows on what side of history these critics remain. If Wagner corrupted music, then so much the worse for some 19th-century conservative notion of musical purity.

But the other side of this also needs mentioning: the fanaticism of some of Wagner’s supporters – and claims even sillier than the hallucinogenic character of his music. It’s to swallow you, to engulf, even drown you, so the argument goes – as Wagner himself claimed, good performances of his (no doubt pretty astounding) Tristan and Isolde will drive people insane. As above, this perception of the music’s inexorable power is another ideological hangover: it’s fairly easy to see how Wagner’s music revolted and delighted so many when you consider the formal and substantive limits of classical and romantic music placed on composers of that era, and how Wagner broke so completely free of them.

We’re talking about a time when fistfights basically broke out over the failure to return to a home key at the end of a movement. (This is a bit of an exaggeration. But riots, famously, did break out after performances of Schoenberg’s and Stravinsky’s works a few years later, and Wagner’s music at the time was considered hardly less revolutionary than that of the former two composers.) It’s therefore pretty easy to see how the views of both his detractors and supporters could become so polarised, and his music retain the false air of sorcery and synaesthesia.

But I think the claims for its ‘drug-like’ power are due also to the fact that Wagner’s music is surprisingly accessible and compelling. Spice remarks on “how unnervingly intelligible [Wagner’s operas] are, and how, in being so intelligible, they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us ineluctably in.” In fact, this is partly why Wagner’s music was so hated by so many, particularly those who aligned themselves with the composer Johannes Brahms in their defence of ‘absolute music’ in the more academic classical tradition. (A view, interestingly, not shared by Brahms himself, who admired a good deal of Wagner’s work – although apparently not sufficiently to sit through more than one act of each opera at a time.)

As Shaw claimed, “[t]here is not a single bar of ‘classical music’ in the ‘Ring’”. It was this strain in Wagner that Thomas Mann was to unfairly prejudice as “dilettantism promoted to the level of genius”.  Obviously repudiating these claims, composers such as Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner praised the classically symphonic development of each opera’s musical material. Other composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, however, saw in it the beginnings of their own use of harmonic colour and effect, free from the dry formalism of their forebears, that they would later turn into their own brand of ‘impressionism’ (a term Debussy didn’t actually care for).

Overall, the furious criticism and defence of Wagner is pretty tiresome and self-defeating. This is particularly true of the criticism: as Thomas Mann said, they amount to “a panegyric in reverse, another form of eulogy.” It serves only to construct in the public mind this ubiquitous fictional character of ‘Richard Wagner’ – publicity in which he would no doubt have revelled –, largely divorced from any consideration of the merits of his work or an honest, sober assessment of his artistic (and political) contribution. In any event, as Brian Magee writes, “It should go without saying, though alas it does not, that our artistic response to, and judgment of, the works of art in question has nothing to do with the extent to which we agree, if we agree at all, with the ideas that inform them.” In the end, we can just listen to the music and enjoy it for what it is. As Jerry Fodor similarly recommends, “Neophytes are advised to close their eyes and listen to the music (remarkable by any standards) but not to read the supertitles.”

With this part-introduction-part-disclaimer over, I want to explore some very specific aspects of Wagner and his work. This is his political views – in particular, his political views as they are presented, on the whole, in his 4-part, 16-hour-long, opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. Of course, The Ring is exceedingly intricate and complex – kaleidoscopic would be a fitting term, given that its minute parts don’t wholly cohere but whose mostly comprehensible, often confusing pattern nonetheless dazzles and enthrals. It invites multiple interpretations, from Marxian to Jungian to whatever else, and it’s obviously pretty impoverished to examine only one shard of many. But, for me, the political character of Wagner’s work, typified in The Ring, is what forced me to take Wagner’s specifically dramatic contribution more seriously. The music alone, it needs to be remembered, is some of the most wonderful you’re ever likely to hear, and this alone may serve to explain the extraordinary devotion that Wagner’s music elicits from its fans. As Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht describe this view, “It’s the music, stupid!” But, as they too think, and I soon realised as I explored more deeply, there is more to it than that. Part of this is the consciously worked-out political program that Wagner’s Ring pursues.

Wagner’s own political experience was crucial to the creation of The Ring. In 1848, a wave of revolutionary uprisings was breaking across Europe – a wave Karl Marx and Joseph Engels rode that year in publishing The Communist Manifesto. Wagner very much attempted to do his bit in bringing about the destruction of the old, unjust socio-political order. First writing pamphlets on republicanism, he began (although didn’t finish) an opera in which he cast Jesus of Nazareth as a revolutionary socialist seeking to throw off the Romano-Judaic political system of the time (no doubt tinged with not a little anti-Semitism). He became friends with the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and whilst there’s no evidence Wagner read any Marx, most biographers think it inconceivable that they didn’t discuss his work – especially given the similarities in content between Wagner’s early socialist writings and Marx’s published views at the time. As his leftist political views took shape, he was a keen reader of Max Feuerbach and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. From the former, he came to believe in the necessity of the existing religious order’s destruction, and its replacement by a revolutionary humanism based on the power of universal love. From the latter, he was reminded that this revolutionary humanism was incompatible with any form of domination or control, whether through private wealth or state power.

Finally, in May 1849, Wagner took to the barricades in the Dresden uprisings – apparently in a role of considerable influence and leadership. (He is reported, for example, to have attempted to arm the local population with grenades.) Sought by the authorities along with the other perceived leaders of the uprising, Wagner only evaded capture by missing the coach that would have unwittingly driven him into a police ambush. As a wanted man thereafter – likely to receive capital punishment or life imprisonment if caught – he fled to Paris (with money given to him by the composer Franz Liszt, whose daughter Cosima he was later to marry).

And so it was that Wagner’s early experience with radical politics resulted in the creation of Das Rheingold (The Rhine-Gold), the first of The Ring’s four operas. Indeed, as John Deathridge writes, the Ring as a whole was “intended from the start as an onslaught on the bourgeois-capitalist order, which for well over two centuries, as Wagner and others saw it in the 1840s, had failed to heal the wounds it had inflicted on society.” Writers such as George Bernard Shaw have, along this vein, sought to develop a socialist critique out of the materials of The Ring, an interpretation that came to life in the fantastic 1976 Bayreuth interpretation directed by Patrice Chéreau (and conducted by Pierre Boulez). No interpretation, of course, in a work so diverse and disparate in its influences will wholly satisfy or cohere, but I think there’s a great deal to be said about this view – and it’s certainly what first got me into The Ring.

The Rhine-gold begins with the unfolding of an innocent, primordial world (across about 4 minutes of just one E flat major chord) – much of the work is ultimately about our relationship to nature and environmental catastrophe (something taken very seriously by the excellent 1992 Harry Kupfner production, with Daniel Barenboim conducting). The Rhinemaidens – basically mermaid-like creatures – guard a store of magical gold buried deep within the Rhine river. Alberich, a venal, self-seeking ‘Nibelung’ dwarf, stumbles across them and attempts to woo – or rape, he doesn’t appear to care – those he finds frolicking in the water. When they reject him, he steals their gold: as the Rhinemaidens rather stupidly explain, it can be forged into a ring whose awesome power ensures world domination, but only by someone who completely renounces love. A theme rises in the clarinets – associated henceforth with Wagner’s dichotomy between love and power – and Alberich readily agrees to the bargain. Running off with the gold, the first scene ends.

In the rest of the first opera, as Marx would have recognised, the harnessing of the natural world quickly turns to capital accumulation and economic power. The ring gives Alberich total control of the other dwarves of Nibelheim (their industrial nightmare of a home, deep underground), leaving them as slaves to the acquisition of more gold. Wotan, the leader of the gods and ruler of the world, learns of this, and obviously desires the ring himself. Crucially, we first see him having compromised love for power in his own corrupt way: he has contracted local giants to build a new seat of government for him in Valhalla, providing his beautiful sister-in-law, Freia, as payment. Ultimately, instead of selling off Freia, he convinces the giants to accept Alberich’s ring and accumulated wealth, which Wotan promptly steals with the help of Loge, his adviser. As he considers whether to renege once more on this deal, to keep it all himself, he witnesses the giant Fafner club his brother Fasolt to death in a fight over control of the ring. The audience are reminded once more of the shocking violence of capitalism, and Wotan decides against it. The three remaining operas are dedicated to showing how the ring is eventually returned to the Rhine – the rebalancing of a natural order disturbed by an elemental act of ecological ruin, and much else.

In this way, The Ring presents a myth, a myth of origins and their working out into a reflection of our existing social and political order – the story Wagner had constructed from a series of Northern European mythological sources several centuries old. It is, as Jerry Fodor writes, a Greek (rather than Shakespearian) tragedy in which psychological depth may be sacrificed for the development of the dramatic argument and its political symbolism. And it was meant, at least in Wagner’s mind, to reflect the social and political order of his time: as John Deathridge recounts, Cosima Wagner’s diaries have Wagner describe the City of London as “Alberich’s dream come true – Nibelheim, world domination, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog”. But its fundamental political argument is anarcho-socialist in character. We see the brutality and corruption of a world in slave to capital and contract. As Brian Magee writes, Wagner claims that “the exercise of political power as such, socialisation, law, are incompatible with the natural order of things, and are inherently anti-life.” Proudhon’s condemnation of private property is then combined with Bakunin’s cry to smash the state – Wagner’s decries the current social, economic, and political order as completely incompatible with the free flourishing of the human person.

Wotan’s rule is, by his own self-serving description, meant to be rule through contracts and treaties, rather than brute force. His spear, on which his contracts are written in magic runes, is the symbol of his world-government and the rule of law. But, of course, contracts and treaties are nothing if not supported by coercive force – his contracts are inscribed on a spear, after all. And Wotan is in any event not averse to using force where he has not been able to secure legal sanction – as when he deceives Alberich and then violently wrests the ring from his finger. Wagner sees a deep hypocrisy in the idea of a society governed by law – that it’s ultimately one founded on terrible state violence – and this is embodied in the tragedy of Wotan’s rule. (We also learn later in the opera that Wotan himself is guilty of much the same act of elemental despoliation as Alberich, in destroying the sacred ‘World Ash Tree’ to make his all-powerful spear.)

John Deathridge also points out the deeper focus of Wagner’s critique of bourgeois society, seeing Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, the second of the four) as “a frontal attack on prevailing middle-class institutions and values”, an allegory for the “moral anarchy” underlying “outwardly stable family structures”. Despite all the myth, The Ring manages to focus sharply on the personal and domestic. We see, for example, the institution of marriage as a tool of social control and the destruction of two lovers for their contravention of social taboos. (As Brian Magee points out, the one relationship that The Ring unreservedly endorses is a plainly incestuous but whole-heartedly loving one – and it is nonetheless destroyed by the gods’ cruel machinations.) More poignantly, we see the (non-incestuous) relationship of father and daughter explored in real depth, as parental love and authority collide in the  Valkryie’s final scene.

The direction, however, of The Ring was to be irrevocably altered with Wagner’s exposure to the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer. The brilliant German philosopher viewed the world as, at base, a manifestation of a universal, untameable Will, whose insatiable desires propel all human and natural striving. The ferocity of the Will, the endless impulse of desire-fulfilment, is an eternal cycle of pain and longing – common to the Buddhist notion of the Saṃsāra, represented by an endless wheel of suffering (Schopenhauer explicitly likened his views to those of Buddhism and Hinduism, particularly those contained in the Upanishads). Its only solution is renunciation, universal compassion, and a deep appreciation of art, all means by which, Schopenhauer claims, the individual is transcended and the fundamental unity of all beings (human and non-human) – as manifestations of the Will – can be recognised.

Happily, for a vegan or vegetarian, this forced Wagner to grapple with vegetarianism throughout his life, agreeing with its basic premises but largely avoiding its practice for reasons of health, or so he claimed. He did, however, include an injunction against animal murder in his final opera, Parsifal, where the hero is roundly condemned for disregarding the significance of animal life after murdering a swan. This is, as far as I know, the only defence of animal rights in the operatic repertoire.

And so the finale of The Ring, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), was to be rather different from what Wagner’s original Feuerbachian optimism suggested. Far from replacing the world’s corrupt regime with an anarcho-socialist utopia, as Wagner’s original plan laid out, the finale has Brünnhilde destroy Valhalla and more or less everything along with it. A beautiful D-flat theme is sounded (one whose origins and meaning are of independent interest), perhaps heralding Brünnhilde’s rescue of humanity from the endless wheel of suffering. And, as Wagner himself thought, the world is certainly one from which humanity needs rescuing: “Let us treat the world only with contempt; for it deserves no better; but let no hope be placed in it, that our hearts be not deluded! It is evil, fundamentally evil…it belongs to Alberich: no one else!” As Jerry Fodor correctly notes, by the end of the Ring, “practically everybody is dead.” But one of the few characters not obviously killed off is none other than the original thief of the gold.

Magee understands some of Wagner’s turn to pessimism as a reaction to political failure: Schopenhaeuer’s work gave Wagner a metaphysical justification for the loss of faith in radical revolutionary politics he no doubt felt after his perceived failure in Dresden. We need not, however, instantly view it as a post-hoc rationalisation of middle-aged conservatism or, as Magee suggests, a move from ‘the political’ to ‘the metaphysical’. As Deathridge writes, “Cosima Wagner’s diaries attest that he was enthusiastic about [the views of Proudhon to the end of his life”, a commitment also evidenced in his copious letter-writing. It may have been, in Theodor Adorno’s words, “the philosophy of an apostate rebel”, but it was a very particular and interesting apostasy – potentially also based on a pessimistic analysis of authority and the rule of law, one which should continue to fascinate today.

The world Wagner ultimately intended to portray in The Ring is so venal and brutal that it can in fact be a stumbling block to your engagement with the work. Men straightforwardly view rape as an acceptable alternative to sexual love, rulers willingly have their children killed to maintain political and moral power, and brothers happily betray each other – or club each other to death – in the pursuit of capital accumulation. Wagner’s intention, of course, was to describe an endless war of all against all, precisely in Hobbes’ sense, and he did just that. But, for the composer, the Hobbesian sovereign whose awesome power is meant to step in to resolve this conflict is impossible: any political and economic system, purporting to control the ferocious and untameable impulses of humanity and nature, will fail. For Wagner, our only salvation is destruction and death, the cosmic calming of the Will.

The philosopher Jerry Fodor puts it more clearly, or at least politically: in his view, The Ring “is largely devoted to exploring a paradox to which it thinks that the rule of law succumbs: laws and contracts are obeyed when the cost of breaking them isn’t reckoned to be worth the benefits…It’s when passions are at their most intense that the rule of law is needed to constrain them; but it’s then that the rule of law can’t be relied on to do so.” Or more specifically, the rule of more than some modus vivendi, a fragile compromise between opposing political forces held together only by calculations of mutual advantage – with each side ready to extract that advantage, whether fair or unfair, at any point. In the just state we think that a better order can be found – one based on the acceptance of the law as a fair arbiter of disputes, with a consequent willingness to accept its equal application to all. Wagner is saying that any such order is just impossible. And so, in Fodor’s words, “the famously moving theme that ends Götterdämmerung isn’t a prelude: it’s a requiem”, that is, a requiem for the very idea of a social order governed by the rule of law.

However, we can’t understand how Wagner’s political claims are made in The Ring without understanding something about his compositional processes. Of major importance is The Ring’s use of leitmotif – individual themes, units of musical material, signifying characters, psychological states, occurrences, and the like. To take a crude example, the ring itself has a particular motif, as does Valhalla. Now, to say that they are merely “calling cards” for individual characters or ideas, as the composer Claude Debussy claimed, would be wrong; their use is much more sophisticated than that. Rather, an occurrence of a leitmotif is specific to the particular dramatic context in which it arises, although it both calls back to its previous usages and remains available for quotation by another part of the music. Each leitmotif may also musically relate to any other, and for important reasons. For example, one motif strongly associated with the magic sword ‘Nothung’ arises not simply whenever the sword is discussed or engaged but at strategic points across the drama to presage the regime’s ultimate destruction. The ‘ring’ motif, moreover, is closely related to the ‘Valhalla’ motif, the former being simply a minor (and, fittingly, cyclical) version of the latter – this fact then serves to underscore the equivalence Wagner claims between the exploitative power of Alberich’s Nibelheim regime and Wotan’s corrupt world-government.

Despite all the detail and complexity, however, the finished product of The Ring hardly reflects anything like the coherence you’d expect of a worked-out philosophical program. Not least as a result of Wagner’s idiosyncratic productive process and the sheer scale of his endeavour, there is much to say as to the final message of The Ring. Of course, Adorno thought Wagner had no idea how to complete the work and simply chucked all of his best material together to create a musically satisfying but intellectually empty finale, dumping on top the most affecting, kitschy melody he could find in what he’d previously written.

And many interpretations of The Ring have therefore vacillated between Wagner’s own divergent views. As the drama ends, Wagner’s stage directions have “men and women” standing “horrified” at Brunnhilde’s destruction, then to be left “moved to the very depths of their being” as the curtain falls. What becomes of them at the end of the opera, and what should we take home from it? Are they beginnings of a new, utopian social order? Or are they ultimately euthanised in Brünnhilde’s redemptive fire? Do we have to proceed with Wagner’s own professed Schopenhaeurian renunciation of a fundamentally evil world, or can we proceed with its earlier view of a utopian future for all? To take two of my favourites once more, Patrice Chéreau’s production ends almost with Lenin’s question of ‘What is to be done?’, as the proletarian onlookers to the destruction onstage turn to face the audience as the curtain falls. The ending to Harry Kupfner’s production, by contrast, has its onstage viewers watch the revolution, televised, in their homes, at a party, or at work; finally, a young girl and boy join hands and walk together across the stage, as Alberich looks on, in shock.

Wagner’s compositional process was also a little confusing, and served to generate numerous difficulties with the finished product. Writing the early parts of The Ring in his revolutionary period, he gave up on the series for several years, during which he wrote his most Schopenhauer-inspired, deeply pessimistic works, Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers. Returning once more to The Ring, he rewrote the cycle as best he could with his outlook fundamentally altered. Some of the seams connecting these two periods, therefore, are all-too obvious, and serve to confuse any attempt to comprehensively explain the work as a whole. (It also means that the music becomes incomparably more sophisticated as the work goes on, it reflecting in microcosm his own fascinating compositional development.)

One of the biggest difficulties left behind by Wagner’s Schopenhauerian turn is that of the character of Siegfried. Originally the hero of the piece, Shaw saw in Siegfried the person of Mikhail Bakunin, the prototypical “anarchist social revolutionary”, in Mann’s words. As the hero who knows no fear, he wanders into conflict with the existing social order and, finding it disagreeable to his wants and needs, throws it off with an insouciant flick of his sword. Such a view isn’t very plausible, least of all because in the finished product Siegfried is not only dramatically fairly unimportant but is only one of the work’s worst characters.

He spends much of the drama with little to no awareness of what’s going on, and whether he’s bumbling along carrying out Wotan’s desire for his self-regime change or getting drugged by competitors for world domination, he is overall a dupe, a pawn, for the plans of others. He’s also fairly psychopathic: our first experience of him is his vicious abuse of his adopted father for being unforgivably ugly and incompetent, and he attacks or threatens to attack most of those he comes across.

Much of this is reflected in the changing character of The Ring as a whole. Once Wagner turned to political pessimism, the social-revolutionary Siegfried was replaced as hero by the tragic figure of Wotan – whose psychological development generates the revolutionary destruction onstage. As Warren Darcy has written of Siegfried, Wagner “abandoned his hero, leaving him to play out a role whose dramatic raison d’être had long since collapsed”; Bernard Williams too described “a real vacuum, a collapse at the heart of the work.” This collapse, as Williams pointed out alongside many others, occurs right in the music as well: some of the best music of the final opera is reserved for Siegfried’s funeral march (one of the few scenes that can be easily amputated for isolated concert performance). On the face of it, the music and drama presents a jarring dissonance: a wonderful eulogy for an insane non-entity of a character.

Whatever over-arching view we take of The Ring, its chief socio-political claims continue to resonate today. As John Deathridge writes, “[t]he cold fire calculating reason represented by Loge has indeed won out in a management-obsessed world demonized by objectification”. Indeed, in Loge – Wotan’s chief adviser-cum-illusionist – we see the eternal figure of the professionally unscrupulous lawyer. In Wotan’s deployment of Loge to evade his contract with the giants, we see a reflection of today’s tax-evading corporations: unfairness and injustice are masked by an intricate façade of legality and authority.

There are, of course, many who deny the view of Wagner we’ve explored. As Deathridge notes, “Wagner’s utopian socialism (like his notorious anti-Semitism) is often greeted with a skeptical shrug, if not outright disbelief.” Indeed, certain left-wing critics have seen more than a little rightist impulses in his work: Adorno, for instance, rather beguilingly described Wagner as “the willing prophet and diligent lackey of imperialism and late-bourgeois terrorism.”  Moreover, Paul Lawrence Rose has suggested that you can’t properly understand the notion of revolution which Wagner pursued without his racism firmly in mind. In his view, Wagner’s “idea of revolution contained always a racial and antisemitic core…a peculiarly German form of revolution in which the sacred German race was to blaze a path to freedom.” In this way, he claims that Wagner’s political views bisected left and right in the precisely the manner of the Nazi party – demanding state control of the economy’s productive forces, for example, from within a political program that demanded the racial and cultural purity of the German Volk.

Bernard Williams also felt he saw something proto-fascist in the political side of Wagner’s work. As The Ring abjures the messy, compromising politics of ordinary human affairs, Williams takes it to demand a politics of “pure heroic action”, “a redemptive, transforming politics which transcended the political.” This, he writes, was to be “exploited in a desultory but ruthlessly opportunistic way by Hitler.” Moreover, Deathridge plausibly claims much the same about the already pretty ambiguous character of Siegfried: for him, he represents “an appalling moral void that looks suspiciously like part of an unsettling drawing-board version of the hero figure first celebrated by fascist movements in the twentieth century”; he is “a fair-headed, protofascist superman marching to the tune of the will to power”.

This neatly segways into a (brief) discussion of Wagner’s extreme anti-semitism (and it was extreme, even by the very anti-semitic standards of the time). The question of the extent to which, if it all, this infects his work, and how, if at all possible, we can sidestep his racial hatred are issues that need considered reflection. And much has been made of claims that The Ring itself contains virulent anti-Semitism and racial hatred. To take one example, some have claimed that the character of Alberich, for instance, is simply an offensive Jewish stereotype that would have been obvious to Wagner’s early audiences, even if not immediately obvious to audiences today. Moreover, we may see in the prominence of incest and the continuing stress on the noblity and purity of the race of the Wälsungs – Wotan’s earthly progeny – a conception of racial and cultural purity beset by impure and putrefying outsiders. Wagner, in any event, had a life-long interest in the notion of racial and sanguinal purity, something that may well have pre-dated his friendship with notorious eugenicist and racial theorist Joseph Gobineau.

However, as Kitscher and Schacht write, “the identification of these characters portraying Jews already presupposes prejudicial stereotypes.” The presentation of these characters as distinctly Jewish is pretty superficial: it is certainly never overt and, in my view, it would have been unlikely to elicit much comment were it not for our pre-existing knowledge of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, something that inevitably colours our perception of his work. In any event, we may think that, even if The Ring is not irredeemably tainted by racism and anti-Semitism, the appalling views of its creator throw serious doubt on the sincerity, or even existence, of his supposedly leftist beliefs. How could someone so racist believe anything like the egalitarianism and  compassion for which socialism is taken to stand?

Well, one response is that this doesn’t really matter: we are assessing our interpretation of The Ring by way of the ideals that we think make the drama intelligible, not by way of Wagner’s own ideals, whatever they were. If our interpretation stands up to scrutiny in making sense of the dramatic work as a whole, then great – if it doesn’t, then not so great. Whatever Wagner thought about his own work is to this extent irrelevant.

Testifying to its wide interpretive possibilities, as Deathridge recounts, is the fact that “[i]n the Wagner anniversary year 1933 alone, Soviet commisar Anatoly Lunacharsky and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels both saw it as a work exemplifying their idea of “revolution”.” But, in general, we need only remind ourselves of the (worryingly pre-genocidal) treatment of the Rohingya in Burma to evidence the potential for total disconnection between the content of a moral-political view – the universal compassion of Buddhism – and its apparent contextual application – rabidly Islamophobic Buddhist nationalism.

There are, no doubt, other strands of moral critique to be brought against Wagner. Wagner’s view of women, for example, was complex and not entirely pleasant. On the one hand, the character of Brünnhilde presents an obvious strand of feminism in The Ring: the very idea of a Valkyrie implies a notion of female power that was not exactly socially conservative for its time. Brünnhilde, moreover, is one of only a handful of psychologically complex characters in The Ring, individuals whose role is not reducible to that of a useful dupe or a representative cipher. But, on the other hand, Wagner happily reproduces misogynistic notions of female purity through sexual repression – where Brünnhilde appears to lose some of her god-like powers after having sex with Siegfried, for instance. Interestingly, his other operas may be considerably worse in this regard: Wagner appears to have intended Parsifal, for instance, to reproduce wholesale the founding Christian misogyny of humanity’s fall through female sexuality – Amfortas is tempted to destruction by Kundry just as Adam is tempted by Eve.

As repeat performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle have showed, we can construct a dramatically compelling, largely coherent view of The Ring shorn of, at least, the racism of its author. And so I think we have to take of the late philosopher of language Sir Michael Dummett about Gottlob Frege, hugely important logician and philosopher but a notorious racist. Sir Michael spent most of his life writing about Frege’s works and the ideas they generated whilst campaigning against racism. The problem, for him, was understanding how a man capable of such brilliance in the study of logic and language could be so irredeemably stupid when it came to issues of race. The same is true of Wagner – how it is that someone could create a work so fascinating and wonderful as The Ring, especially for those interested in leftism, could be so foul in so many other ways (and I haven’t even mentioned what a horrible individual he was to be around in general).

So, on the day of Wagner’s 200th birthday, these are at least some of the reasons why – despite what I’ve written immediately above – you might want to get into Wagner. That is, Wagner as he actually existed and wrote, rather than as the cultural trope whom it’s fun to defend or despoil. It may be that you’re, quite justifiably, not interested in the political ideas expressed, or you just can’t avoid associating much of his music with Nazism or racism. I understand this, just as I understand Israel’s reluctance to listen to his music, if it’s indeed true that many of its citizens just can’t help thinking of the Holocaust whenever they hear it. But this is a deeply regrettable fact, and one that can only be overcome by saving Wagner’s music from himself and his ‘controversial’ legacy. One way of doing this, I think, is rather easy:  just listening to some of (and, importantly, only some of) the most beautiful music ever written – that just so happened to be written by a monstrous sociopath. So here is some.

Ink sketch of Richard Wagner provided by Jessamy Hawke. No reproduction of this image without the artist’s express permission.
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3 comments
  1. lre said:

    Happy birthday !

  2. senex72 said:

    At the risk of sounding naïve, surely all this conscientious havering is outside any matter of understanding and appreciating the works in question? One can take a “principled stand” for or against any artist who actually depicts something, unless you confine yourself to the merely decorative modern art favoured in financial circles. Spencer was a bigoted Protestant nationalist, Chaucer dubiously Catholic, Shakespeare revoltingly patriotic with an unacceptable view of the abilities and artistry of the working class, Picasso openly lefty and anti-war and unable to appreciate female beauty, and as to the Potato Eaters that picture simply flaunts distasteful ugliness no refined persons would tolerate on their wall etc. Art raises issues – even if you think a poem should not ‘mean’ but ”be’ that itself is taking issue.
    The point of entering the marvels of art, novels, music and drama is precisely that: enter in to it – risk feeling the familiar ground slipping from beneath your feet! Otherwise it might be better to confine yourself to a basic English vocabulary of 860 words and plant potatoes? – though like gymnastics potato-planting (not to mention eating or famine) no doubt has its share of contentious overtones. Can’t bear to look into Wagner’s particular mirror? Get over yourself, as they say.

  3. One of the best articles about Wagner I have read. Followed a link from Alex Ross.

    You didn’t mention Heidegger – another complex figure caught in the shadow of Nazism. I would suggest that, aside from the hermeneutic and phenomenological originality and profundity of his thought – and it is, no doubt, deeply profound – there still remains an inescapable hole at its heart – a ‘hole’ the size of an ethics – and consequently, his whole oeuvre is tainted. But – and here is a similar paradox – I still find Heidegger immensely significant even though I sense this emptiness at the core of his thought….(See, in particular, Henry Corbin’s remarks on Heidegger).

    In some ways Wagner carries the same ‘stain’. Those who love his music are able to ‘listen’ to it even though it is stained – because there is something which transcends the man and his errors. Penetrating beyond the ‘human stain’ perhaps gives us a clue of how we, as human, overcome prejudice, racism, etc.

    It is only human to err but the errors of great figures wound the rest of us.

    Excellent article.

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