Ring of fire

Wagner and Philosophy

Bryan Magee <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 416pp, £20</em>

ISBN 071399

If one of those assertions easier made than checked is to be believed, more books have been written about Richard Wagner than any other man apart from Jesus and Napoleon. The most fanatical Wagnerian cannot complain of a shortage of reading matter, and those of us less fanatical may wonder how many more books we can take. But if there has to be another, Bryan Magee is the man to write it. As a Labour MP, and then one of the earliest members of the SDP, the polymathic Magee was pretty much the last person of real intellectual distinction to sit in the Commons; and as a philosopher, he has been both university teacher and "high vulgariser" on television. His books include The Philosophy of Schopenhauer and the brilliant essay Aspects of Wagner; his latest work, Wagner and Philosophy, combines the two interests.

Astonishingly enough, Wagner had almost no formal education, academic or musical. The man who revolutionised tonality and orchestration learnt both almost as an amateur. And as an amateur, also, he devoured books and ideas. Ideas meant both philosophy, in the abstract form, and politics. Magee describes Wagner's relationship with a line of German philosophers, especially Feuerbach. Later, Schopenhauer came to mean more to him than any other; but at the time he was sketching the libretto of the Ring, he was living under Feuerbach's spell.

The young Wagner was a revolutionary, playing an active part in the Dresden revolt of May 1849 and fleeing into exile after its failure, but he then drifted steadily away from radicalism. Writing with what sounds like more than a slight autobiographical touch, Magee says that when youthful revolutionists leave behind such enthusiasms in middle age, they are not necessarily "moving to the right". In some cases, they are obviously doing just that, but more often they have simply grown weary of "all the struggle of a fight with a common wrong or right", and found that art and love matter more than politics. At any rate, Magee sees Wagner's coming to full maturity as a product of his disillusionment with politics and discovery of Schopenhauer. Although the Ring was conceived before this encounter, his other great operas were created in totality after it. And these, following the "turn" in Wagner's life, all have an intense aura of Schopenhauer.

The story of Wagner's friendship with Nietzsche, the last philosopher in his life, passionate devotion and then disenchantment, has been told before, but remains as haunting as ever. Even after the blissful infatuation had been succeeded by perceptible, if unspoken, estrangement, Nietzsche never ceased repeating that his relationship with Wagner had been the most important of his life. Since Wagner's music addresses the unconscious more than any other composer's, and since, as Magee says, Nietzsche is the profoundest psychologist of all philosophers, their connection is of the highest importance in cultural history.

Alas, that isn't what the man in the street immediately thinks on hearing Wagner's name. In one chapter, Magee dilates on "Wagner's misleading reputation", not least as a reactionary, bigot and ultra-nationalist; and in a long appendix, he returns to the related and vexed question of Wagner's anti-Semitism. Magee makes rather heavy weather of this, and I am not sure that he doesn't protest too much. He ritualistically condemns Wagner's phobia (I sometimes think I would like to hear a prominent Wagnerian get up and say, "Of course, the Meister was absolutely right about the Jews"), while rehearsing the familiar arguments: many Jews worshipped Wagner; he cannot be blamed for Hitler liking his music; and the message of his operas is love, not hate. That is the intellectually sophisticated line, to which we intellectual sophisticates are meant to subscribe. But perhaps there is more to it.

In the 1840s, it was still possible - indeed, almost compulsory - for German liberals to combine liberalism with ardent nationalism. After the failure of liberalism in the revolutionary years 1848-49, Germany took a "turn" of its own, and very much for the worse, as the intellectual elites in particular abandoned their liberalism but kept their nationalism, only more so. Wagner fitted this pattern. For all his supposed detachment from politics, he became a jingo of the coarsest sort. To anti-Semitism, he added brutish Francophobia, vulgarly gloating over the defeat of France in 1871. And although he could not live to see the Third Reich, he spent the last 12 years of his life under the Second, already puffed up with the hubristic self-assertion and power-hunger for which he did, in fact, help set the tone. Or so Nietzsche thought, repelled as he was by the overweening atmosphere of the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.

There is, in the end, a certain perversity about books of this sort, even one as distinguished as Magee's. Wagner was an amateur philosopher, a voracious reader and an unflaggingly copious scribbler, which did not make him a great writer. At one point, Magee says that, "leaving aside for a moment the question of whether music is superior to the other arts, there can be little doubt that Wagner's talent for it was superior to his other talents". Little doubt! Superior! You could as well say that David Beckham's talent for football is superior to his talent for particle physics.

The truth is that if Wagner had left behind nothing but those verbal texts, books, polemics, opera librettos and all, he would be forgotten. No one but academic researchers or deluded cultists (assuming these are distinct categories) would ever read his books, nor the librettos, either. Magee rightly says that librettos should not be judged as literature: the test is whether they inspire a good opera. Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto for The Magic Flute is trash; the music isn't. But, ignoring that principle for a moment, it should be said that, merely by literary standards, Wagner's texts are markedly inferior to Lorenzo Da Ponte's for Mozart or Hugo von Hofmannstahl's for Richard Strauss.

What's more, treating Wagner in conceptual or philosophical terms is not the best way to endear him to us. Although his writings display a strong natural intelligence, they are also the work of an autodidact and crank. His music can be overwhelming and overbearing, as he was in person. Both his own writings and Cosima Wagner's remarkable diaries make that clear. He was a monomaniacal bore, a buttonholing and proselytising vegetarian one moment, anti-Semite the next, and altogether the sort of man you avoid in a pub. However hard one tries, it is impossible to like Wagner the man. And treating his operas in logical or ethical terms may also make us wonder just how likeable they themselves are. Why should one good woman after another sacrifice herself even unto death to redeem an obnoxious man?

Even Magee recognises that "conceptual thought has an exceedingly limited reach when it comes to art", and he rightly says that the decisive flaw in Nietzsche's criticism is that "he never addresses himself to Wagner's works as works of art". Indeed, I sometimes suspect that Nietzsche wasn't actually very musical, and that, in this respect, he set the pattern for so many Wagnerians ever since. That is not true of Magee the music lover, whose informed passion for Wagner's music communicates itself. But to Magee the philosopher, one feels like replying:

Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie
Und grun des Lebens goldner Baum.

In this context, Goethe's words mean that all theory is grey - including theoretical examinations of Wagner - while the golden tree of life is green. And that means Wagner's music, at its wonderful best.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's The Controversy of Zion is published by Sinclair Stevenson (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer