The ultimate seduction: revisiting the case of Wagner

Wagner aimed to overthrow 19th-century silliness and replace it with a new "music drama".

Collage by Matt Wisniewski

Still revered and reviled, misunderstood and misappropriated, Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago, on 22 May 1813. Most people agree that Wagner is not like other composers. His music seems to reach parts that other music doesn’t reach, something “outside the province of reason”, as his biographer Curt von Westernhagen put it. Wagner’s music exerts an irrational hold over people of wildly diverging tastes and philosophies, including many who aren’t otherwise particularly interested in music at all.

Thanks to Wagner, my own musical education (still very incomplete) has been back to front. It started with Wagner, from where I’ve had to travel through musical history in reverse. Having immersed myself in the life and work of a great revolutionary, only later did I explore the classical tradition that Wagner vigorously challenged and permanently altered.

A chance conversation with a friend at university led me to sign up for a course called “Wagner and German History”. My logic was simple and ignoble. Given the choice between a year of saturation-level research on the Black Death or spending my afternoons “studying” by lying down listening to opera, Wagner won hands down. The first Wagner lecture proved I’d been even luckier than I thought. Our professor, Tim Blanning, closed the blinds and played us a recording of the Prelude of Lohengrin. I was hooked. Most proper addictions have to be worked at. Wagner got into my bloodstream instantly.

Wagner is an unusually interesting composer; he has always been a “case” rather than just an artist. First, sadly but inevitably, there is the unavoidable if wildly overstated issue of his influence on Hitler and his misappropriation by the Nazis.

Secondly, Wagner did much to reposition and advance the status of the artist in the 19th century. It is hard to imagine a more complete triumph for a composer than the building of an entirely new type of theatre, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, to make certain that his masterwork (The Ring) was staged in an appropriate environment. Wagner was an inverse outsourcer: he craved, and ultimately achieved, complete control. (He might have admired the sentence that ended Prince’s album sleeves from the 1980s: “All songs produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”.)

The scale of Wagner’s struggle and ingenuity is remarkable by any standards. In his twenties, he had failed to establish himself in Paris, the centre of the operatic world. He then endured decades of poverty, debt and exile, constantly struggling to secure performances of his work. Wagner’s ultimate triumph was all the more complete because it was on his own terms. He didn’t just break the rules, he invented a whole new game – the apotheosis of Romantic self-belief.

Thirdly, Wagner talked and wrote incessantly. He left a vast resource of books, articles, letters and diaries. The collected edition of his writing, excluding letters, runs to 16 volumes. It is often said that more books have been written about Wagner than anyone except Jesus Christ and Napoleon. That is untrue, but Wagner certainly made impressive efforts to get the ball rolling himself.

His second wife, Cosima, wrote a diary of extraordinary detail, earnestness and, sometimes, vile prejudice. At university, my fellow students developed a satirical, mock-Wagnerian short-hand, echoing Cosima’s obsession with her husband’s health, habits and opinions. “R has a slight cold,” we would parody, “western civilisation depends on his instant recovery.”

Yet taken together, the vast collected record of Wagner’s theories and opinions adds a further dimension to his career: the relationship between his own creative output and his artistic theorising. Wagner’s manifesto was epic in ambition as well as volume. He argued that the status of art, having reached a pinnacle in ancient Greece, had collapsed to new depths with the bourgeois vulgarity and silliness of much 19th-century opera. It needed to be overthrown. In its place, the artist of the future (ie Wagner) would bring together the techniques of Beethoven and Shakespeare into a single form called “music drama”.

For theory and practice to run in parallel within a single career is, unsurprisingly, more common among writers than composers. Tom Wolfe, for instance, has written didactically about what modern novels ought to be like, the themes they should address, even the process by which they should be written. “It is necessary to have a theory in life,” he has said, “to write well in fiction or non-fiction.” Such certainty suggests that Wolfe is driven by the desire to prove himself right, for the novelist to vindicate the critic.

But isn’t it beneath an artist constantly to be explaining what he is doing – or what he thinks he is doing – or, more cynically, what he wants to be thought to be doing as he goes along? Can we trust an artist who is also a critic? “An artist is usually a damned liar,” D H Lawrence once declared, “but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth.”

Wagner’s theoretical musings provided Friedrich Nietzsche with the stick he used to beat Wagner in his sparkling attack, The Case of Wagner. Nietzsche had once been an ardent Wagnerian and a friend of the composer.

The Case of Wagner will reward readers who love Wagner as well as those who dislike his music, even those who are entirely indifferent. One of its pleasures, undoubtedly, is its cruel wit and ad hominem attacks. But Nietzsche’s arguments will bring a halfsmile of recognition even to the most dedicated Wagnerian. Even if they disagree with the verdict, it is hard not to enjoy the brilliance with which Nietzsche sets out the anti-Wagnerian case (especially if you have ploughed through volumes of Wagner’s turgid prose).

Here is Nietzsche’s acid summary of Wagner’s voluminous theorising:

Everything Wagner can not do is reprehensible.

There is much else Wagner could do: but he doesn’t want to . . .

Everything Wagner can do, nobody will be able to do after him, nobody has done before him, nobody shall do after him. –
Wagner is divine.

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily – that one will not
find it difficult enough to understand? 

Wagner required literature to persuade the world to take his music seriously, to take it as profound.

In reply to Wagner’s virulent critique of conventional operatic style, with its pretty arias and ensembles, Nietzsche made the devastating rejoinder: “A bold habit accompanied Wagner through his whole life: he posits a principle where he lacks a capacity.”

But Wagner’s theories have their intellectual advocates, too. The view that we ought to take Wagner’s artistic and philosophical ideas seriously – the case against The Case of Wagner, if you like – has been superbly taken up by the philosopher and memoirist Bryan Magee in two books, Aspects of Wagner and Wagner and Philosophy. Both are enjoyable and insightful. I can’t, however, completely go along with Magee’s attempt to resuscitate Wagner as a thinker. Instead, I wonder whether Wagner’s incessant theorising was mostly a device for cajoling his own musical and dramatic creativity.

I found myself thinking of Wagner when I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent book Antifragile. Taleb is best known for his work on finance but he writes just as astutely about the creative temperament. Taleb is brutally bossy: writers should not write too much journalism, they should not hold academic posts, they ought to pursue total independence and gentlemanly autonomy, they must resist any suggestion of professional dutifulness.

With the exception of his solvency, which Wagner would scarcely have recognised, Taleb is thoroughly Wagnerian. But Taleb is not only writing for the reader, I suspect he is setting out a manifesto for his own purposes. His attacks on others are actually a means of reinforcing his commitment to his position, like an adventurer who deliberately blocks off his escape routes. Theory becomes a means of artistic self-bullying. Taleb’s fights with the wider world are partly driven by the desire to make life more difficult for himself, and so, he hopes, more artistically rewarding.

The same reasoning, I think, applies to Wagner’s theories. They are another expression of his heroic personality, an example of Wagner setting an impossibly high bar for himself. He was a pessimist by conviction, in the opera critic Michael Tanner’s brilliant phrase, but an optimist by temperament.

Alongside the question of theory and practice, there is a second dimension to Nietzsche’s case against Wagner. In essence, it is that he was a trickster (his contemporaries often referred to him as a “wizard” or “sorcerer”) a conjurer of false emotions:

Was Wagner a musician at all? . . . There was something else he was more: namely, an incomparable histrio [actor] . . . He became a musician, he became a poet because the tyrant within him, his actor’s genius, compelled him. Wagner was not a musician by instinct

Thomas Mann picked up a similar theme in his essay “Pro and Contra Wagner”. Mann used the term “double focus” (borrowed from Nietzsche) to describe Wagner’s gift for satisfying sophisticated needs while simultaneously gratifying more commonplace ones. The audience is merely subtly charmed, flattered, manipulated. To Mann, it was dishonest artistry.

Even those of us who love Wagner recognise a feeling of resistance, as though we might be, at least partially, being duped or seduced. We don’t entirely trust feelings even as we experience them. Murray Bail, the Australian novelist, captured this disquieting dimension, the way Wagner’s music rolls “across the audience in waves of such open seduction”. Bail added: “I had felt it necessary to put up some sort of resistance – but was pulled in anyway.”

Only occasionally has that voice of doubt been entirely absent from my own experience. Around a dozen years ago, I heard James Levine conduct Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The final act is dominated by an impassioned argument between the god Wotan and his disobedient daughter, Brünnhilde.

For fear of lapsing into euphoric cliches, I will try to explain the opposite of what I felt at the end of the performance. We have all sat through Hollywood films where we know exactly whose side we are on from beginning to end. We yearn simplistically for a neat resolution of the plot, for good to defeat evil – and that is exactly what happens. But after a moment’s satisfaction, the experience recedes into emptiness, so much so that you begin to resent the candy that was dangled in front of you for the two preceding hours even though you ended up eating it.

The experience of Act III of Die Walküre that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining. Through the combination of music and drama, I had understood the complexity and, above all, the truthfulness of two characters locked in a disagreement that could not be resolved. The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel. Even more revealingly, I was sure that I couldn’t fully explain it in words.

And that is why, I suspect, we are still listening to Wagner 200 years after his birth, why we continue to be drawn in, often with reservations, sometimes more completely and authentically.

Ed Smith is a columnist for the New Statesman and the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)