A Musician's Retort

By Anton Seidl



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

Table of Contents

About this Title


Nordau's Theory of Degeneration: A Musician's Retort
By Anton Seidl

The North American Review
Volume 160 Issue 463
Pages 740-743
Published in 1895

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

Reading Information

This title contains 1120 words.
Estimated reading time between 3 and 6 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).

A Musician's Retort.

By Anton Seidl.

THE reading of Max Nordau's book at first filled me with disgust. As I progressed with it, however, I became convinced that it was not the work of a pessimist, striving to be sensational, but of a man of unbalanced mind, like one of those unfortunates frequently met with in lunatic asylums, who appear while you converse with them to be perfectly rational, but suddenly spring ideas at you that clearly demonstrate that their intellect is unsettled. Such an apparently sane person tells you, with an air of importance and pity, that every inmate of the institution, except himself, is crazy; while he is the craziest of them all.

How greatly distorted the mental faculties of Mr. Nordau are, he betrays on the second page of his scurrilous chapter on Wagner, where, in order to substantiate his silly accusations, he refers to Mr. Praeger's biography of the great musician—a book which, after having been branded by some of our most noted and conscientious critics as a network of ridiculous assertions and [741] infamous misrepresentations, was withdrawn from the market by its publishers. But this discredited book, with its false dates, its false quotations, and incomprehensible inferences, is accepted by Mr. Nordau as a trustworthy source of information.

Mr. Nordau proceeds to fable of "dancing and howling dervishes," who, in the Bayreuther Blaetter, burn incense before their fetish, Wagner. Every branch of art has its organs for promoting its interests. Wagner also perceived the necessity of speaking to the cultured world, not only by means of his music and his works, but also through the press.

Nordau's shorty explanation of the principle of Wagner's art might have been written by a caged-up lunatic! Take, for instance, expressions and conclusions such as these: that the architecture of Cologne Cathedral impresses one without the by-work of a dramatic performance; or that the Pastoral Symphony impresses one without explanatory words; or that Faust's depth and beauty can gain nothing by adding music to it.

Well, I believe one can safely say that the grandeur of the architecture of Cologne Cathedral impresses one a thousandfold more when seen during high-mass, when the magnificent edifice is filled with the delicious fumes of incense and resplendent with myriads of lights! Furthermore it is a well-known fact that, in all theatres of high rank, the lack of music during productions of "Faust" was deeply felt, and that was why most of them introduced music during such performances with more or less success. And then if Beethoven in the "Partitur" of his "Pastoral Symphony" had not given a few hints in regard to his ideas or intentions concerning his music, I wonder how many different versions there would now be in existence. Perhaps, for instance, Mr. Nordau might have mistaken the manifestations of rapture on the arrival at the idyllic country-place for the merry bustle in the market-place of a town.

In imitation of Mr. Praeger, Mr. Nordau revels in unintellible and absurd perversions. He speaks of Schopenhauer as condemning "grand opera," but he avoids mention of the fact that Wagner himself pronounces the so-called "grand opera" to be humbug. Mr. Nordau either deliberately confounds Meyerbeer's "grand opera" with Wagner's musical drama, or he proves himself incompetent to understand or criticise Wagner's works.

This writer upbraids Wagner for his bombastic style of [742] writing, and cites a few of Wagner's expressions, which he declares to be incomprehensible. But let us take a glance at Mr. Nordau's own style of writing. How, for instance, is this: "What Wagner takes for evolution (speaking about 'Art-work of the Future') is retrogression, and a return to a primeval human, nay, to a pre-human stage?"

It is not to be wondered at that Mr. Nordau, in vieing with Mr. Praeger, sees in all those who occupy themselves with Wagner, who impersonate or sing his characters, who play his music, or read his works, degenerate beings. He even strives to prove, by words patched together, that Wagner was an anarchist! Does not this show that Nordau is ripe for the insane asylum, if only in the capacity of cicerone?

Wagner is declared to be erratic, because he sings ever the praise of woman. What then were Schiller, Goethe, Beethoven and many others who did the same thing?

He speaks further of the shameless sensuality of Wagner's poems and cites Hanslick. A nice fraternity indeed! He vilifies the German public who listened to the first act of "Walkuere" without blushing just as if Parisians, New Yorkers, Londoners and St. Petersburghers, had not become enthusiastic over this musical drama! Nordau, the writer of the book "Degeneration," as preacher of morals!

The elaborations on Wagner's "Redemption" idea are indeed the most rancorous and unreasonable portion of the chapter. Here he brings Mr. Nietsche forward as witness, a man who is known to have been mentally deranged for years. Well, who does not detect in that the action of the lunatic, who shows the unsuspicious visitor about the asylum, telling him that everybody in the institution, doctors included, himself only excepted, is crazy, until the visitor suddenly discovers to his horror a dangerous maniac in his cicerone.

Mr. Nordau's Praegeristic treatment displays itself also in another instance. He cites Nietsche as a competent critic of Wagner's dramatic poetry, but rejects Nietsche as of imbecile judgment in criticizing Wagner the musician. That is called consistency! And Nordau charges Wagner with inconsistency!

All that Nordau prates about Wagner's music proves clearly that he understands it no more than a policeman does the art of casting a bell. It is true there are many others who share this [743] stupidity with him; but he is altogether asinine when he declares that one may go to Bayreuth only when one knows all the "leit-motifs" by heart. According to his own confession, he does not know them himself, and yet he sits in judgment on them. This kind of action is more than moral degeneration.

Nordau is seeking the laurels of an Erostratus. There are persons who can accomplish nothing of their own, and these imagine that it may be very lucrative to demolish whatever great and beautiful thing has been created by others, so that attention may be attracted to themselves.

Anton Seidl.