Richard Wagner's works are as immense as they are influential: the four-part, 15-hour saga Der Ring des Nibelungen is the most analysed opera of all time. And yet, Wagner was arrogant and virulently anti-semitic. Can we separate the musical genius from the man? Opera critic Michael Tanner recommends the best books on Wagner.
The word ‘revolutionary’ is often applied to the 19th century composer Richard Wagner. This is mostly used with regard to his work, but also with an eye to his early political activity. How revolutionary was Wagner?
Politically, he was very revolutionary for a period in the 1840s. He especially got caught up in and was excited by Dresden’s revolution in 1848-9. When that was aborted in 1849, he had to flee and it was only thanks to Franz Liszt and a forged passport that he wasn’t sentenced either to life imprisonment or possibly even execution. Several of his friends weren’t so lucky.
After that, the normal story goes that from then on he did the usual thing of fighting a rear-guard action and ending up as an extreme reactionary. This isn’t actually true, although he was certainly a German nationalist in many senses. With his usual skill, he managed to combine anything that he wanted to believe in into a whole. For example, he thought that the ideal state would be a republic under a king, which is a nice way of squaring the circle. He just thought that would be the best way of establishing a stable Saxon state.
But I think the main reason he became a revolutionary in 1848-9 was because he was in charge of the musical activities in Dresden and he was so miserable about the standards of performance that were expected and tolerated, the hard work that his musicians had to do for inadequate pay and the general disregard in which the arts were placed. He thought that they should be a central element in a society. He was sufficiently annoyed and depressed by the fact that the arts were so marginalised by his standards, that he became a revolutionary.
“His idea of art was apocalyptic enough for him to think that a work of art could effect an overall change in society”
In art itself, of course, he became gradually an incredible revolutionary. He thought that the arts should be absolutely central in the life of everybody which was, of course, extremely idealistic of him. The Ring, for example, which is the work that he wrote under the impact of the failed revolution, grew and grew and grew, as everyone knows. His original idea for that, as amazing as it seems, was that it should be performed in a wooden structure by the Rhine. There should be three cycles of The Ring, and then the festspielhaus that was built for it should be burnt down and so should the score. And that would be the end.
He actually saw The Ring as a kind of ritual which would inaugurate a new age. His idea of art was apocalyptic enough for him to think that a work of art could effect an overall change in society. He probably needed to believe something like that in order to undertake such a gigantic project.
Your first choice is Richard Wagner: A Biography by Derek Watson.
Yes, this is a very handy book. It’s the most convenient one-volume biography on Richard Wagner in English that I know. Watson writes about Wagner’s relationship with his second wife Cosima particularly well, but I think it’s all very good. It’s thoroughly sane and straightforward; it doesn’t have any stunning insights but it’s fair minded. He’s not grinding any axes, which is unusual for a writer on Wagner.
There aren’t that many biographies of Wagner in English. Most books are about him and his music, with varying degrees of emphasis on the music or the action with just a certain casual reference to the life. There are other books that are hard to classify like Martin Geck’s Richard Wagner: A Life in Music (2013) which is a very useful book but it’s a quite sophisticated conceptual approach. I thought about recommending it but, on the whole, I think it might be too demanding for those new to Wagner on the whole.
Let’s turn to his music. Your second book choice is The Wagner Operas by Ernest Newman. Tell me about why you have chosen this.
This has also been published under the title Wagner Nights. This book is just extraordinarily good. Some say it’s out of date, but only because some small scale research has improved our knowledge of the precise order in which something has been written. Each opera gets something between fifty and one hundred pages. He explains how it was written in an extremely helpful way, elucidates the plot, then goes through the opera, quoting from his own translations.
It is scholarly in the sense that he doesn’t make any mistakes, but it doesn’t bog you down in scholarship. It also gives you musical examples of motifs, which some find daunting, like ‘renunciation.’ He didn’t have any question that there were such things as leitmotifs and that they had names. Actually, the best thing to accompany this is the CD by Deryck Cooke, who is a supreme Wagnerian authority. He takes you through The Ring with orchestral excerpts specifically played to show you the motifs. Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic are playing them, and he gets certain motifs played over and over again to show how they change.
How revolutionary were Wagner’s operas themselves?
He was utterly musically revolutionary, but gradually. Nietzsche said that Wagner was the latest developing of all the great composers. That may be true, although nowadays people are looking more kindly on his first two operas: Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot.
Rienzi, his third opera, is never performed in full because it lasts longer than any other Wagner opera. He panic-strickenly cut it after the first performance because it was so long. And, actually, because Winifred Wagner gave the manuscript of Rienzi to Hitler as a birthday present, it seems to have gone up in flames the same time that he did. So, we don’t have the original complete score. We only have a piano transcription which has been orchestrated by Edward Downes. Anyway, it’s such a bad opera that the shorter it is the better.. It’s his Meyerbeerian grand opera, in the bad sense: lots of pomp, lots of dancing, processions, heavy scenery, historical plot, and so on. It is alleged that Hitler said that it all began when he heard Rienzi. Except he couldn’t have heard it to the end, I think, because Rienzi comes to a very bad end…
But the two previous operas are quite good. Die Feen is a kind of Mendelssohnian fairy music. It’s a charming work and is very much on the Undine theme—like Dvořák’s Rusalka—about a mortal man and an immortal spirit and the danger of their coming together, with her sacrificing her immortality and so on. Das Liebesverbot is his drastic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. This is a strange concoction of Italian opera. You would think it was Donizetti mainly. It’s rather good, although considerably too long. The overture starts with castanets for the first few bars.
The Italian bel canto—these long floating melodies—was something that appealed to Wagner all his life long. Wagner actually loved Bellini and wrote an aria to be inserted in Norma, which is really strange. It doesn’t sound at all like Bellini to me, and it’s strange that it ever sounded like it to him. Wagner said that he wanted his later music dramas to sound as if they were bel canto operas. This is all very well—he may have said that—but you couldn’t perform them that way because the vocal lines just cannot be made into bel canto lines.
The Flying Dutchman is only revolutionary in its quality, really. One of his versions of it is straight-through for a whole two and a half hours. That’s the version that I like best, and is his most Bellini-like work because it alternates between the passionate noble Wagnerian declamation—of the kind that you get in the later operas—and arias of a very Bellinian kind by each of the main characters. It’s one of the greatest operas there’s ever been.
Tannhäuser is a kind of backward move in some ways, but it has a gigantic ‘everybody standing still and singing their respective reaction’ type of finale in Act II which is extraordinarily fine. I think it is the greatest grand opera finale there is—better than any by Verdi.
Lohengrin is interesting because it shows Wagner’s orchestration becoming completely individual. That’s what defines Lohengrin. The sounds that Wagner makes are just utterly different from what anybody else had ever done. The prelude immediately shows a transcendental orchestrator doing things that nobody had ever dreamt of. And it’s an odd mixture, again, of very gorgeous traditional melodies—long flowing melodies of the kind that Wagner never wrote again—and a great deal of marching, countermarching, outbursts of swearing of revenge, and all of that kind of stuff. Of course, there’s the famous wedding march—which shouldn’t sound anything like what it normally does sound.
Then, there’s the famous five year gap during which he didn’t write any music at all. He attempted to write The Ring but it just didn’t happen. And then, finally, he allegedly—this is almost certainly Wagner being creative in his autobiography—woke up after a bad dose of diarrhoea in La Spezia, having dreamt the prelude to Das Rheingold. Now, if anything is revolutionary it’s the prelude to Rheingold. I’m always amazed by that page-to-page in Rheingold, the technique and the effect of his orchestration is completely unlike anything one has heard before. As for Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, we can discuss those in more detail later.
“The sounds that Wagner makes in Lohengrin are just utterly different from what anybody else had ever done”
But Wagner wasn’t consciously avant-garde in the way that Stravinsky or Boulez might be, in wanting to smash various idols with a schedule. He just thought that music-drama should be of a certain kind and aimed to do that. The result in his last opera Parsifal was revolutionary, hence the rather riddling name of ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel, a stage-consecrating festival drama. What exactly he meant by consecration is unclear. He certainly didn’t mean it to be religious in the sense of it being like the St Matthew Passion as I’ve argued over and over again. He wasn’t aiming to convert people to religion. The knights in Parsifal are a pretty awful lot actually. It’s not just that Amfortas needs healing with his wound, the whole community is extremely sick. Anybody with ears to hear can hear that from the Prelude to Act III which is some of the illest music ever heard. It evokes a kind of extraordinarily painful spiritual barrenness which is really amazing.
What are his distinctive musical techniques? How would you characterise them?
It’s continuous musical accompaniment which is not only accompaniment of the action but is the action itself, as it were. Also, it’s the beginning of the use of the leitmotif—these leading and recurring musical motifs—throughout the works. This is not a name that he used. He may not have approved of it and contemporary commentators may not approve either.
Nonetheless it’s just true that, for The Ring, the ring motif is the ring motif and the sword motif is perfectly obviously for the sword, and Valhalla is Valhalla. However many mutations they go into and however many inflections they may have, they are motifs.
And the way that he uses motifs in The Ring is completely different from the way that he uses them in any other opera. They are much more nameable in The Ring. With a few odd exceptions, it’s much clearer what any motif might be for—even if it’s quite a recherché thing like the motif of murder which only occurs in the strange scene between Alberich and Hagen in Act II of Götterdämmerung. There’s a very quick nervous motif which is the motif of murder, as Alberich suggests to Hagen what he should do.
But you must be careful with leitmotifs. One example is the so-called ‘redemption by love’ motif which Sieglinde thrillingly sings in Act III of Walküre. It shouldn’t be called ‘redemption by love.’ A chemist wrote to Wagner about the motif. Cosima replied and said, The master says that if it’s to be named at all—which he didn’t approve of—then it’s the ‘glorification of Brünnhilde.’ It’s not as if Brünnhilde is glorifying herself at the end of Götterdämmerung but it is glorifying her. She is obviously something much larger than she has been before that point.
You mentioned that Wagner wouldn’t approve of people naming the leitmotifs. How far did he want the audience to be consciously aware of them?
It’s never clear, actually. As far as I know, he never said anything definite on that score. It’s unclear whether he’d be the kind of cook who didn’t want you to know what went on in the kitchen. On the other hand, it’s not only what goes on in the kitchen, it’s also about what’s on the plate. There’s no question that if you do know the motifs, particularly in The Ring, it does add a dimension to your understanding. There are ironic quotations, enforced quotations, motifs that were originally in the major and then go into the minor, other key changes, or they are put in combination.
For example, take the prelude to the third act of Siegfried, which is when Wagner went back after a twelve year break to recompose The Ring. It’s enormously complex, it’s Wagner saying this is me getting back in my stride. And the number of motifs that he throws around, like Jove hurling rocks at you, is absolutely flabbergasting. I think you do need to recognise that there is Wotan’s spear and the hunting motif. It adds a dimension of excitement, even though you’re being swept along by the music.
Can you give an example of a particular motif that transmogrifies and, in so doing, acquires new dramatic meaning?
Yes. When the motif of Valhalla is introduced, it is itself a transformation of the ring motif. The introduction of the ring motif in the opening scene of Rheingold is threatening and oddly unobtrusive. I think it’s Flosshilde who is saying something about renouncing love and then the ring motif just kind of crawls in. But then, after Alberich has stolen the gold and gone off, you get it much more clearly as the transformation music takes place to take you into the rocky height. And you gradually hear the motif in thirds moving until it becomes, before your very ears, the Valhalla motif which is quiet and enormously noble. It quite quickly receives grand—and even pompous—treatment. At the end of The Ring, it takes on an extreme grandeur that is crushed. There’s something about the Valhalla motif which suggests that although it’s very grand, it’s also liable to crumble and disintegrate.
Your next book is The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music (1992). Why have you chosen this?
Because it’s compendious. It does have a lot of contributors, edited by Barry Millington. He has some useful things in there, like a very good chapter about mistakes that everybody makes about Wagner, for example, that more books have been written about Wagner than anyone else in history apart from Napoleon, Hitler, and Christ. He points out that it’s nonsense. It’s just a folk myth. Millington is very good on lots of other famous myths about Wagner’s character, his womanising, and stuff like that. You can look up the plot of any opera and you’ll find a succinct account of the plot and of the musical structure and of the development of Wagner’s art. If you want just to know something about the name of anybody who played a really significant part in Wagner’s life, you’ll find that there. And it’s all economically put. There are some longer chapters, for example on Wagner and Schopenhauer, which are not so successful but it doesn’t matter. It’s still a useful book to have. The best chapters are the ones on the operas, the basic elements of the plot, their scoring, where they come from, and the way they were received and so forth.
Would it be an exaggeration to say that Wagner is the most controversial composer ever?
It would be an understatement. He’s always going to be controversial and one cannot regret that he is, because it means that he is eternally fresh. The esteem for him is so high, or so furious. This is a point adumbrated by Brian Magee in his little volume Aspects of Wagner (1968), but he doesn’t press the point. Wagner seems to operate at a certain level that excites some people enormously and upsets other people. The idea of Wagner as a bore is no longer tolerable as a thought by any musically educated person. No sane musical person would say that Wagner was negligible. It is perfectly clear that Wagner is an astonishing creative genius.
“Wagner seems to operate at a certain level that excites some people enormously and upsets other people”
As for the negative controversy, it’s partly the extra-musical dimension and the fact that we know so much about him in every respect. That’s a great shame, in my opinion. The main claims against him are womanizing. Stealing his best friend’s wife is the normal cliché. It is not true, or at least a shallow and silly reading of what happened. In the case of Cosima—who was the most significant woman in the second part of Wagner’s life—she said that her ideal from the word go was to devote her life to a man of genius.
She met Hans von Bülow, who was unquestionably a man of genius, and married him when she was very young. He was absolute hell and acknowledged this himself. He was a great composer, pianist, proselytiser for Wagner and other composers, and selfless in many ways, but he was a terrible husband. He made such a fuss about Cosima having their first child—because the noise disturbed him—that when Cosima was pregnant with their second child, she didn’t dare tell him. She went into labour whilst pretending she wasn’t and trying not to scream so that she wouldn’t annoy him. Cosima fell hopelessly in love with Wagner and Wagner fell in love with her—though never in the way that he had done with Mathilde Wesendonck. And Bülow, shattered as he was that Cosima left him, nevertheless approved in a certain sense.
“Is a person a megalomaniac if they have ridiculously vast ambitions all of which are completely fulfilled?”
Wagner was, in most respects, an extremely nice man. He was a wonderful father and very anarchic, whereas Cosima wanted the children brought up strictly. Wagner believed in giving them their freedom and romping around and so forth. People who knew Wagner were completely charmed, including people who thought they were going to be hostile to him. Nietzsche was prepared to be charmed by him but when he met him was just bowled; he wrote to a friend that he was the most delightful, witty, fast-talking person. In small gatherings, he kept everybody entertained and was wonderful. He had such supernatural energy, he was just brimming over the whole time. People couldn’t believe how entertaining he was.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Everyone always talks about his megalomania, but is a person a megalomaniac if they have ridiculously vast ambitions all of which are completely fulfilled? One reason that Wagner is so controversial is that people are annoyed that he had these world-conquering ambitions all of which he managed to fulfil completely. He surpassed anything anyone could imagine. There’s still no musical or dramatic achievement to compare with The Ring, for example. Tristan und Isolde is a particular miracle of art, as everybody will agree. Even people who can’t bear Wagner or can’t bear Tristan will still agree that music is either pre-Tristan or post-Tristan. Stravinsky, for example, clearly wasn’t influenced by Tristan but he was influenced to be extremely anti-Tristan as it were, to write music that was as anti-Romantic as possible. Without Tristan, the whole of late Romantic music would have been impossible.
“And you should be shocked by Tristan, not because it’s erotic to an extreme degree, but because it extends the notion of what is erotic”
Shocking eroticism was another charge against him. Clara Schumann, who attended a performance of Tristan, said that she had never been so shocked in her life. And you should be shocked by Tristan, not because it’s erotic to an extreme degree, but because it extends the notion of what is erotic. It’s proto-Freudian in the sense that it suggests that Frau Minne – the goddess of love – is the surging force beneath everything that we do. There’s not very long in any of Wagner’s music where the erotic isn’t suggested. You feel with other composers—even ones who are dealing with love and so forth—that there are quite long passages where there is no sense of an underlying erotic surge in the music. With Wagner, there constantly is. Whether it’s between brother and sister in Die Walküre, or a couple who aren’t so intimately related, or between father and daughter. He explores it to extreme and sometimes alarming lengths, as in, for example, Kundry’s narration to Parsifal in Act II of Parsifal. She’s trying to seduce Parsifal who doesn’t even seem to know what it is to have a hard-on. There he is, lying on the floor in a state of extreme weakness because she has explained how his mother Herzeleide died because he deserted her, and she pined and waited and he never turned up again. Parsifal goes in for this orgy of self-reproach and then collapses. And Kundry bends over and says ‘but before Herzeleide died, she asked me to give you her last kiss which can also be love’s first kiss’, planting a kiss on his lips which is his real awakening. He realises that you can’t know anything if you don’t know about sex, which is rather shocking in the context of Wagner’s contemporaries.
For readers that haven’t yet heard Tristan, what would you single out as being so utterly distinctive that music has to react to it from that point? Why does it set a watershed for musical history?
The main thing about Tristan is that you are waiting for it to reach some kind of conclusion which is endlessly postponed. The very opening phrase – the famous yearning opening phrase – is then repeated with long silences and repeated again, which gives the basis for the whole. You could almost say that there is only one motif in Tristan and that is the opening one which just gets endlessly repeated, apart from the music that emphatically is opposed to it, such as Kurwenal’s music which is emphatically diatonic. Even King Marke’s music is still in the Tristan idiom; he’s in their world to that extent. It’s the fact that it’s ceaselessly chromatic in a way that western music hadn’t ever been before. And this means that you’re always hanging on and waiting for something to resolve; and it’s only four hours later that it actually does. That creates an extreme feeling of unease and ecstasy combined, at least in the sympathetic listener.
With this musical expression of longing, how is that instantiated by the drama?
Brilliantly. Wagner had to work with these extremely elaborate and confusing and confused medieval sources and he just got right in there, stripped them all down, and got to the barebones. So, there’s just Tristan, Isolde, their two factotums Kurwenal and Brangäne, Melot, and King Marke. There’s no messing with any complications. The only really quaint relic from any medieval version, of course, is Tristan as narrated by Isolde going to Ireland and calling himself ‘Tantris’ instead, which is comic really as a disguise. Imagine Churchill smuggling himself into Germany and calling himself ‘Chinston Wurchill’. Apart from that, the quaintness has all gone and it’s deadly serious. For me, Wagner is the most perfect dramatist there is – even greater than Shakespeare in sheer construction. For example, after the shattering power of the Tristan prelude which never quite resolves, you have the very beautiful unaccompanied song of the sailor singing in the rigging. This gives you aural relief and is enormously potent in establishing the atmosphere: the young sailor in the rigging is so evocative, which is why it is so annoying in modern productions to find that it’s all taking place in a stag party or whatever it may be.
The only person who wasn’t shattered by Tristan and completely influenced by it was Wagner, who calmly and immediately went on to write Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of which the mood is completely different throughout, apart from the few bars where Tristan is quoted. Apart from that, it’s as diatonic as a work can be. A lot of people have said – and I think I probably agree – that you need to know Tristan in order to enjoy Meistersinger to the full, to see what an astonishing contrast there is between the two.
When the character of Hans Sachs references the legend of Tristan in Meistersinger, you hear associated Tristan music by Wagner. Is that kind of self-referentiality mirrored anywhere else in his work?
Not like that, no. The only thing I can think of that’s comparable is the swan motif from Lohengrin which occurs when Parsifal arrives in Act I of Parsifal having just shot a swan. He’s reproached by Gurnemanz and you get the swan motif from when Lohengrin arrived in Act I of Lohengrin. But I think that’s just Wagner being self-indulgent. Parsifal itself breaks entirely new harmonic ground, especially the third act which is the object of universal devotion among musicians.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Debussy particularly, who disliked the ethos of Parsifal intensely, made those famous remarks about the orchestration as being ‘lit up from the inside’ and one of the greatest monuments ever erected to the glorious art of music. It is just radiant and amazing, having a luminous quality with trumpet piercing through it in that strange and unease-making way.
I’d like to talk a little about the term ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. It’s often used as a core principle behind Wagner’s aesthetic commitments. Can you say a bit about what this means and whether Wagner was equally committed to this totalising principle throughout his career?
The concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk is a bit of a bore actually, as Thomas Mann points out in his great essay. Wagner’s theoretical works are prodigiously long and written in almost Hegelian prose; they are really hard-going. He needed to work himself through this kind of cumulative view that the more arts you could get into one package, the more exciting it would be. The main thing comes down to action, music, and words being as integrated as possible. But this is what Monteverdi wanted, what Gluck wanted, and what Mozart certainly wanted. This is what all the people one most values in opera wanted. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that. Wagner just rigged it up like mad because he couldn’t stop conceptualising everything. He had a desperately overactive mind. But I don’t think that Gesamtkunstwerk is an interesting thing at all as a cumulative project. You could say that Gesamtkunstwerk is a useful context in opposition to the deconstruction – as we now have to say – of Regietheater where everything is as un-gesamt as possible: you’re hearing enormously noble music and you’re seeing some gangster messing around in a brothel. That’s the anti-Gesamtkunstwerk with a vengeance.
Is there not the idea that up until Wagner began composing his later works, music was subservient in some way to just showing off the vocal prowess of the singers?
Yes, he certainly wanted to react against the prioritisation of the voice just idly doing things to show off. My feelings about Handel, for example, is that a great deal of it is someone standing still and emoting with floods of coloratura. And coloratura drives me mad, except if sung in certain Italian operas and if sung by Maria Callas. The whole thing about vocal gymnastics, which is really what it comes down to, in Rossini or Donizetti, makes me feel that this should really be in the Olympics, not in the opera house. Wagner went back to the old line of dramma per musica, the original thing: drama through the music, opera as drama. That is the only idea that matters.
The music is subservient in the sense that its point is to articulate the drama, not subservient in the sense that you hardly notice the music at all because you’re so interested in the drama. Wagner, up to a point, I think was confused about that. I always think it’s amazing that he finished writing Rheingold and then went on to Walküre the next day, as it were, because Walküre immediately takes you into a different world. The most extraordinary thing about Act I of DieWalküre is the way that after the storm when Siegmund comes in and says Ein Quell!’, and Sieglinde replies ‘Erquickung schaff’ich’, there’s a long orchestral section, she brings it in, and then there’s that long cello solo. There’s so much music in between everything they say. And that’s unlike any other opera, to have that amount of orchestral music in between each interchange, which depicts this growing sense that they’re very attracted to one another in a way that they don’t understand. That’s a miracle, I think. And that’s not like anything in Rheingold. I think the arguments in Rheingold are so interesting and compelling. You have this hammer and tongs quality that is unlike any opera by anybody. There’s an intellectuality about it, the sheer level at which they discuss these things. You have giants complaining about keeping contracts. It’s not the stuff that opera is normally made of. But it keeps the music down a lot of the time. Quite a lot of Rheingold is something near the recitative.
As far as most opera composers are concerned, Wagner was unusual in that he wrote the libretti and the music. Does he give equal weight to the text as he does to the music? I’ve often been suspicious about how far he’s committed to the Gesamtkunstwerk, because in the love duet of Tristan und Isolde, for instance, they’re singing over one another and there are long sustained notes, and the text isn’t always immediately clear.
Well, in Tristan there’s a good reason why they are singing together because, of course, they claim that they’ve lost their personal identity and, actually, they are merging. You have this extraordinary metaphysical stuff of ‘Tristan du, / ich Isolde, / nicht mehr Tristan’ and so forth. So, there’s a good reason why they should merge. But, of course, you can’t follow everything, like ‘O sink hernieder nacht der liebe’ partly because it’s so stretched out, and then you have Brangäne’s watch-song.
You’ve alluded to the metaphysical aspects of Wagner’s work. Would you say that Wagner is the most philosophical composer? Can you give another example of how this is reflected in his work?
Yes, there can’t be any question. He’s incredibly intellectual and he combined intellectuality and extreme sensuality. The Ring is the opera of his with the most evident argumentation. For example, you have the argument between Fricka and Wotan in Act II of Die Walküre which is a debate that you could follow and get engaged in without any music. There’s the scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde too, when he’s trying to make sense of it all and fails, and the big scene in Act III becomes very philosophical when she’s pleading that she did what he really wanted to do but couldn’t. Parsifal carries you into some pretty abstract areas too, such as the nature of the relationship between sin, redemption, chastity, sensuality, and conquering base impulses in the interest of higher ones. It’s a heavy agenda. Wagner is interested in myth in general and Christianity has been the central myth of the western world. He wanted to work with the Norse myths for The Ring for all kinds of reasons, including nationalistic feeling, but you can’t be a western man without Christianity being your fundamental myth whether you take it to be factual or not.
Your next choice is Drama and the World of Richard Wagner by Dieter Borchmeyer (2003).
This traces the development of major obsessions of Wagner’s or, at least, strong themes that go through his work. For example, a lot of his characters tend to not know who their mother or their father was – sometimes both, sometimes one or the other. Siegfried cries for his mother in his hour of need when he’s trying to waken Brünnhilde, Parsifal feels extremely unhappy when he’s reminded about his mother Herzeleide, the Wälsung twins in Die Walküre are unclear about their parentage except in vague terms, and so on. That was clearly a big preoccupation of Wagner’s, where he came from. You can relate this to the fact that he wasn’t sure who his father was. It might have been his official father but it could have been Ludwig Geyer whom his mother went on to marry.
“ Wagner was a huge reader and very enthusiastic and impatient”
There are various other themes such as redemption through or by or from love, in a broad sense, which pervades the works. There’s this need for redemption. I think Borchmeyer’s book is the best introductory guide to these themes that go through his work in relation to what Wagner was reading and what he was thinking about. Wagner was a huge reader and very enthusiastic and impatient. As soon as he thought he got hold of an idea that excited him, he didn’t bother to check whether it actually was the idea or his idea of the idea. It makes for a convincing study of Wagner and his development in each individual work and what gives it its individual character as well as belonging to the whole corpus of Wagner’s work.
With the themes that he’s looking at in this book, is he anchoring them all in some way in the personal details of Wagner’s life?
He’s not anchoring them, but he’s doing them in parallel. Where it’s interesting to do so, he will go across from one parallel line to another and then come back again. It’s not of the psycho-biographic kind where he analyses the works in terms of the character and the character in terms of the work and that sort of thing, going around in a vicious circle—or even a virtuous one. He doesn’t do that. It’s just intelligent and very well informed.
With the details of Wagner’s life and the details of Wagner’s work, I’ve been struck by some instances where in the earliest stages of composition and writing, there have been characters with more than conveniently coincidental names. The unflattering character of Beckmesser in Meistersinger was first called ‘Hanslich’, as a reference to Wagner’s perceived nemesis, the music critic Eduard Hanslick. Similarly, Senta in The Flying Dutchman was originally called ‘Minna’, the name of Wagner’s first wife. So, there is this permeability between his life and his work.
Yes, of course. That’s probably the case with any artist. We just have the good fortune or bad fortune of knowing a lot about Wagner. There really can’t have been any artist until, maybe, the twentieth century who was so astoundingly documented. This was partly because of his copious letter writing and partly because he made such an enormous impression on anybody who ever met him. They all wrote about him. So, there’s this simply fantastic quantity of material to struggle with and get some general picture of.
The title of this book emphasizes drama rather than music. How hands-on was Wagner with the production history of the operas? He doesn’t seem to have been a laid-back composer and writer; he was conducting and directing as well.
He was a man of the theatre, through and through and through. It’s said that when he wanted to show the first Elsa how to walk across the stage to the wonderful music for the procession to the minster in Act II of Lohengrin, he ‘became’ Elsa. He walked across the stage and nobody ever did it with such dignity and humility and grace as Wagner. He terrified people when he was producing The Ring by jumping up onto the scenery and staging the battle between Siegmund and Hunding. He was pretty old by then—he was about 62-3 and his health was already shaky—and there he was jumping up on top of cardboard scenery. He would turn himself into a toad or into a dragon for Das Rheingold. He just loved acting. He was most at home on the boards. If he could have done, he would have conducted The Ring but he wasn’t in a state of health where he could.
“He would have done everything if he could have done. He’d have been the conductor, the producer, and all the performers”
He couldn’t conduct the first Lohengrin because he was banned from Saxony because of his revolutionary activities, so Franz Liszt did it for him – although he did it far too slowly according to Wagner. He tended to like very brisk tempi, or at least he said he liked brisk tempi. For example, the only time in his later life that he conducted part of his operas was the famous occasion of the last performance of the first run of Parsifal in 1882. He went down into the orchestra pit and conducted for the transformation music to the final scene. He moved up to Levi who was conducting and gently pushed him aside and took up his baton and conducted to the end. Levi stood by in case Wagner made a mistake of some kind, which he might have done because he hadn’t conducted anything for a long time. And Wagner took it so slowly that the singers would nearly have died except it was him conducting so, of course, they were prepared to do anything for him. So, they did them at this incredibly slow tempo that Wagner adopted.
But, yes, ‘hands-on’ isn’t even the word. He would have done everything if he could have done. He’d have been the conductor, the producer, and all the performers.
Many people who have never heard Wagner’s operas are nevertheless suspicious of them. Why do you think that is?
There’s this reputation of being long, loud, Teutonic, turgid, pretentious, and kind of metaphysical. People are frightened by opera anyway, I think. Many people have said to me, ‘how on earth can I start to listen to opera?’ as though it’s something incredibly mysterious.
Wagner is like that only with knobs on. I think people are just scared by the size, the amount of commitment that you have to make in order to get to know his works. Although almost everybody claims that The Ring Cycle lasts for seventeen to eighteen hours, it actually lasts for fifteen – even in slow performances. That’s still pretty immense, of course – more immense than anything else in opera is or ever will be—but, as he wrote to Liszt, he’s dealing with the beginning and end of the world. So that immensity is one factor to start with.
And then there’s the enormous propaganda about Wagner and Hitler. For me, that’s just a bore. I’m not saying that it’s a coincidence that Hitler liked Wagner rather than, say, Mozart or Haydn. You can see that there are things in Wagner that would appeal to somebody who had world-dominating delusions. But to say that Wagner was responsible for Hitler, which Joachim Köhler claimed for a long time, is just astounding. Köhler wrote a disgraceful book called Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple, before suddenly changing his mind utterly in an article about three or four years ago in The Wagner Journal.
I think that brings us neatly on to your final choice which is Pro and Contra Wagner by the German novelist Thomas Mann. Here we are looking at the reception history of Wagner. As the title suggests, these essays express Mann’s ambivalence towards Wagner. Perhaps the most famous is “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner”, based on a lecture he gave in Germany in 1933. I wonder if you could say a little about the political motivation for Mann’s critical comments here and also the price he paid for expressing them?
His ambivalence towards Wagner, as towards everything actually, is fascinating. With Wagner, he said his relationship was one of “love without belief”. He didn’t accept a lot of Wagner. Wagner’s worldliness and appetite for worldly success, combined with his ascetic dedication to his art—Wagner said a day without work is a nightmare for me—Mann found that to be the paradigm of the artistic constitution.
It’s an illuminating book. He wrote it at the end of 1932 and the start of 1933. He was very politically aware by then, he lived in Munich. He constantly saw street battles and his children were involved in scuffles with Nazis, so he knew what the score was.
He very much addresses Wagner the internationalist, the supra-national, the person who wasn’t concerned with pushing German art as such. That lecture was the main reason why there were these warriors of the spirit—unfortunately orchestrated by the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, who had been a friend of Thomas Mann’s and lived close to him in Munich—that grouped together against him.
There has been a great deal of discussion on the whole subject. It seems to have been a joke at Thomas Mann’s expense to get a protest signed by the Richard Wagner society of Munich, with Knappertsbusch, Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner—the composer of the great opera Palestrina—and various other great conductors and distinguished cultured politicians. There were about fifteen to twenty people protesting on behalf of the city of Munich against Mann.
Thomas Mann says in his usual warm but ironic spirit that Wagner was a “dilettante on the grand scale”. It’s absurd to call him a “dilettante” as Wagner was so passionate and professional. Stravinsky, for most of his life, was a strong anti-Wagnerian. When someone thought they’d get into his good books by saying how much they hated Wagner, Stravinsky said ‘yes, but he was a professional’. He really knew his stuff. Nothing was done amateurishly.
Had the Nazi appropriation of Wagner begun in full force at the time that Mann was writing?
No. Hitler had always passionately admired Wagner, partly on musical grounds. He went to Bayreuth in 1923 to an early rally, when the Nazi party was still quite a small one and met with Siegfried Wagner – Wagner’s son – and his wife Winifred Wagner. Winifred became a fanatical Nazi very early, despite being English. She went to Hitler’s rally and invited him to Wahnfried—Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth. Hitler, of course, was incredibly excited and spent a long time at Wagner’s grave. From then on, animated correspondence took place between Winifred and Hitler. Bayreuth virtually became a Nazi centre, thanks to the Wagners who were a nationalist, reactionary lot.
“The relationship between Wagner’s art and the Nazi ideology is much more tenuous than people think.”
When Hitler was sentenced after the failed putsch in Munich – which Winifred had been at – she sent him writing paper with Bayreuth heading for him to write Mein Kampf on. And then, when he came to power in 1933—shortly after her husband Siegfried had died aged 61—Hitler subsidised the Bayreuth festival and turned it into a great Nazi rallying point. He insisted on the top Nazis going. And he was in ecstasy; he used to sit in the box with Winifred, kissing her hand, while the other Nazis sneaked away to town brothels if they could, because they were so bored by Wagner. All of this Wagner thing was actually Hitler—Hitler and Goebbels. The rest of the Nazis were bored stiff. The relationship between Wagner’s art and the Nazi ideology is much more tenuous than people think.
In the light of the relation between Wagner and Hitler, how far should we stress Wagner’s anti-semitism?
It doesn’t seem to be particularly helpful. You could do the same with Luther, Marx, and Kant. Admittedly, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was very extreme, though it was peculiar. He also said things to Cosima which are recorded in her diaries about how ‘We haven’t got far enough yet to incorporate the Jews into our society, they are ahead of us.’ There are a lot of remarks like that, at the same time as the hatred.
The first conductor of Parsifal, Herman Levi, was Jewish. Wagner didn’t want him to be the first conductor because he hated to have an orchestra conducted by a Jew. It was Ludwig II, Wagner’s patron, who was anti-anti-Semitic who insisted that if Herman Levi was not to conduct Parsifal then it wouldn’t be done.
But there is also this bizarre phenomenon that many of his best friends were Jews. Wagner became very friendly with Levi and stayed with him the day before he died. Levi wrote letters to his parents saying, ‘Wagner is the kindest and noblest and finest of human beings, don’t believe what you read about him.’ So Levi was a passionate devotee of Wagner. Heinrich von Stein, who was Siegfried Wagner’s tutor, was also Jewish.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Wagner also had a great Jewish following, and there have been lots of famous Wagnerian Jews who have just swallowed the gnat as far as Wagner’s views are concerned. They were both extremely peculiar and completely inconsistent in many ways.
Do you think there’s an obligation for aficionados of Wagner’s work to go through this process of grappling with the more unpleasant aspects of Wagner’s life and legacy?
No, I don’t think there is. It’s quite hard to resist, but I don’t think there’s more necessity with Wagner than with anybody else. It’s important to know which order the works were created in.
Shakespeare was fortunate enough for us not to know anything about him. “If by pressing a button”—as Elizabeth Anscombe said about Wittgenstein’s personal life—and there be no knowledge of Wagner, then I would rather it was that way. Unfortunately, I’m of the ‘intentional fallacy’ school. I can’t resist reading about the artist that I most admire. But I wish I could.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org