Richard Wagner remains the most controversial genius in music, perhaps in all the arts. The controversy began during his life— over ten thousand books about him were published before Wagner's death in 1883—and continues still. The musical world is divided in Wagnerians (sometimes called Wagnerites) and anti-Wagnerians. Many have switched positions as they discover more about their genius, or their monster. In the case of most artists, knowledge of their private lives is not essential to an understanding of the nature of their work. Although Wagner's life doesn't explain his work, it cannot be ignored in an analysis of his work, because it is often the direct antithesis of his creative spirit. Furthermore, bad people are generally more interesting than good ones. Wagner is fascinating: an incredible music-dramatic genius who was an undiluted monster.
Wagner is that enigmatic blend of good and evil, great and cruel that sporadically appears in Germany, the country of Kant and Himmler, of Bach and Walter Ulbricht, of Goethe and Goebbels. Wagner's conceit was almost pathological. He read everything aloud to his relatives and friends. He didn't expect criticism, only applause. In Of Mice and Music, Deems Taylor writes Wagner had the emotional stability of a six-year-old child. When he felt out of sorts he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom...He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. He was convinced that the world owed him a living...He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted friend, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was writing to a wealthy woman, whom he could marry for her money...He had a genius for making enemies. He would insult a man who disagreed with him about the weather... But he also concludes that this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time..What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? There is a greatness about his worst mistakes. The miracle is that what he did in the space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius, is it any wonder that he had not time to be a man? He was a complex monster.
Financially, he cheated his best friends. For example, Otto Wesendock (the man whose wife Wagner stole away) who bought the publishing rights to Rheingold and Walküre in 1859, had wide experience with Wagner's character, and was perhaps not too startled to learn that Rheingold was sold again to Schott of Mainz without any intention on Wagner's part of repaying the original advance. As a requital Otto was granted the rights to Götterdämmerung—an unwritten work! But in 1865 Wagner demanded that Otto without reimbursement give up all claims to the Ring (he had also paid for the incomplete Siegfried) and even surrender - amiably and generously—the orchestral score of Rheingold, his only remaining asset of these transactions, to the Ring's newest proprietor, the Bavarian King. The climax of double dealings came, when King Ludwig's ownership rights, for which he had paid untold thousands of marks, were ignored by Wagner, who proceeded to sell the Ring to individual theater for his own profit. Obviously, Wagner was a crook on a scale befitting his musical genius. His duplicity extends to almost everything else he did. He extolled the virtue of chastity in his early operas while having numerous affairs. Working in his study in Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth on the first act of his Buhnenweihfestspiel (a stage-consecrating festival play) Parsifal allegedly a religious work, he wrote to his douce amie, Judith, to send him amber and powdered scents which he spread in his bathroom, located underneath the study so that he could breathe in the aromatic fumes rising from below and with them memories of Judith's glowing embraces, while working on the pious admonitions of good, old Gurnemanz. Yet he had the audacity to refer contemptuously to Rossini as Italia's voluptuous son, smiling away in luxury's most luxurious lap.
Wagner's pathological hatred of the French and the Jews is a matter of record, and made him the idol of Adolf Hitler. Wagner had incredibly bad taste; most nineteenth century anti-Semites would have been horrified by Auschwitz, but one has the uncomfortable suspicion that Wagner would have wholeheartedly approved. In 1881, Wagner wrong, about the great solution concerning the Jews, urging his fellow Germans to conquer false shame and to shrink from ultimate knowledge. To many, this is a terrifying sentence. Wagner's letzte Erkenntnis, the ultimate knowledge, later become the Endlösung (final solution) of Himmler and Eichmann.
Wagner hated nearly all fellow composers, and he hated most those from whom he learned most. He hated Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. He hated Meyerbeer and ridiculed the grand opera -and he wrote his own grand opera, Rienzi. He hated Scribe and wrote his structurally derivative Meistersinger libretto. The difference between Wagner's aesthetic, polemical writings, and his musical and dramatic practices is bewildering. In Oper and Drama, his most important treatise about opera as an art form, published in 1851, he severely condemned, Mozart: …Nothing seems more characteristic to me concerning Mozart's career as an opera composer than the careless indiscrimination with which he approached his task; it did not occur to him to ponder over the aesthetic scruples underlying the opera; on the contrary, he proceeded with the composition of any text submitted to him with the greatest lack of self-consciousness. One wonders whether to be infuriated b Wagner's impertinence or amused by his stupidity and ignorance. The amazing thing is how long people were fooled by him, and how many are fooled by him to this day.
Theoretically, Wagner condemned duets and ensembles because they make the words difficult to hear; according to his writings, the words are as important as the music, maybe more important. Whereupon he wrote Tristan und Isolde, with its great and wonderful love duet in the second act, in which the words were made nearly unintelligible by the overwhelming power of the passionate music. In Meistersinger, there are not only arias, choruses and a ballet (all that Wagner hated so much about eh despised Meyerbeer), but even a quintet! And because Wagner was such a genius, it happens to be the greatest quintet ever written for the operatic stage. About the book of Götterdämmerung, with its poisoned drinks, conspirateurs' ensembles, massed choruses, and Scribe-inspired coups de théâtre, Bernard Shaw wrote quite correctly that it has much in common with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. In his writings Wagner demanded that conventional arias linked by recitatives are to be replaces by what he called continuous melos )preferring the Greek word melos to melody which he considered vulgar). He argued strongly against the singers' opera where plot and orchestra are subordinated to vocal display, as in the works of Rossini and Bellini. Wagner carried this out in Rheingold and parts of Die Walküre. But in Götterdämmerung, Meistersinger and Parisfal, with heir powerful choruses, he wrote post-Meyerbeer super-grand opera, and in Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser he often stops the action by giving the singers beautiful arias.
Wagner's main problem was not his enemies but his friends. The closest friend was young Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest thinker of the late-nineteenth century, who considered Wagner his ideal superman, the emanation of the eternal, who would bring about eh regeneration of all the arts in the spirit of ancient Greece. As a young philosopher, Nietzsche was overpowered by Richard Wagner the man and the artist. he saw in Wagner the herald of the new Dionysian man said Lang. The break came when Nietzsche's romantic admiration was challenged by his critical powers. He began, deeply shocked , to sense Wagner's insincerity. He must have had his first doubts when he was privileged, among Wagner's closest friends, to read the manuscript his autobiography. He later wrote …That which is circulated as Wagner's autobiography is fiction, if not worse, intended for public use. I must confess that every point we know from Wagner's description I regard with the greatest suspicion. He was not proud enough to utter the truth…even in biography he remained true to himself—he remained an actor.
In 1873, Nietzsche wrote regarding Wagner that he who believes in himself only is no longer honest toward himself. The final break came nine years later when Nietzsche heard Parsifal, which he called Christianity arranged for Wagnerians. Nietzsche had known Wagner was a cynical atheist, and that what seemed like a conversion was due to Wagner's wife Cosima. Nietzsche also knew that among close friends Wagner was still cynical about his wife's beliefs. It is no secret that the editors of his letters deleted many of Wagner's anti-Christian polemics. Nietzsche, who knew the Master better than anyone else, rightly sensed opportunistic and materialistic beliefs behind Parsifal. Wagner was keenly aware of the bourgeois sanctimonious mentality of the Germans, for God, Kaiser and Reich; Nietzsche knew this was ashamed of Wagner for pandering to the public and der Psycologie der Masse. It was the end of a beautiful relationship. Wagner survived easily, but Nietzsche brooded about the disappointment and some believe it may have contributed to his later insanity.
Many say Wagner was a man of fascist mentality, colored by something essentially, if not exclusively Teutonic, and it is above all in the Ring that this side of his nature emerges. By a fascist mentality, it is meant a preference forward against peace, for violence against gentleness, for retaliation against forgiveness; a glorification of strength and a contempt for weakness; an exaltation of health and a disdain for suffering. And by Teutonism (not for a moment to be thought as the mark of all or even of most Germans) it is mean as a predilection for vastness as against proportion, for cloudiness as against precision, for an inflated romanticism and a vague nobility. Wagner began by writing poetry and philosophical studies. In 1831, at the age of eighteen, he began to study counterpoint. Two years later, he wrote Die Feen (the Fairies), and a historical grand opera, Rienzi. He was under the influence of his predecessors (Meyerbeer, Halévy, Spontini, Spohr, Méhul, Marschner) and borrowed freely from them. Hanslick described the first-act finales as mixture of Donizetti and Meyerbeer, and an anticipation of Verdi. Wagner was furious but then he calmed down and wrote Der fliegende Holländer where the master's hand becomes visible, and audible (journeying from Riga, in 1839, Wagner had experienced violent storms between Pillan and Gravesend which mad his trip, according to his own description, more terrifying than the first voyage of Columbus). There are already great moments in the Holländer, such as the Dutchman's appearance in the first act, Senta's ballad and her meeting with the Dutchman, and the ghost chorus in the last act. The opera was a failure in Dresden, in 1843; the audience was bored and after only four performance of the work was dropped for twenty-two years. Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1847) are romantic operas; but again, there are long flashes of Wagnerian genius. No romantic composer had yet written anything as exciting as the Venusberg Music. And there is drama and excitement in the schizophrenic female characters, Elisabeth and Venus, whom Wagner, with blinding clarity, saw as the woman. Lohengrin remains the German fairytale opera, in which Wagner used orchestral colors that had never been heard before. Tannhäuser did quite well in Dresden in 1845 but Wagner's real troubles with the work began in 1861, at the Paris Opéra. During the second performance members of the local Jockey Club, who used to arrive late at the opera house, started a riot because they had missed the splendors of the ballet at the beginning of the first act; they were joined by a large group who were opposed to Wagner. After the third performance, he withdrew the work.
Lohengrin too had mixed reception. Wagner wrote it backwards starting with the third act, and ending with the prelude. Liszt (Wagner's future father-in-law) presented the opera at his small Hoftheater in Weimar. The orchestra had only thirty-eight members and the singers were second-rate. Gradually, however, Lohengrin was accepted and remains one of the composer's most popular works. Weber's influence is obvious but Wagner surpasses his predecessor; no one before him ad created orchestral effects that might almost be called impressionistic.
In 1849, Wagner joined the revolutionary movement in Dresden, went on the barricades, had to flee from Germany into Switzerland (he didn't hear Lohengrin performed in Germany until 861). As a refugee in Zurich, he wrote his theoretical essays, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, and Oper und Drama. He had become acquainted with the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and saw the answer to many questions in Schopenhauer's romantic interpretation of the cosmic nature of music (music is the melody whose text is the world). This sounded great to the impressionable mind of Wagner. But Schopenhauer also said, Music is more powerful than words, music and words is the marriage of a prince and a beggar. German romanticists always considered music supreme among the arts, but Wagner wrote that the poetry must derive from the myth, that the musician must be the servant of the poet.
Gradually, Wagner evolved his grandiose concept of the Gesamkunstwerk (total theater) where drama, music, scenery and lights are welded into a powerful unity.
Wagner worked long and hard on his librettos. In a letter to Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist, praises Wagner's dramatic structures and the inimitable excellence with which the way is prepared for the music. A good libretto must be a good play which also prepares the way or the music. Great librettists are rarer even than great playwrights.
Wagner's poetry is dominated by alliteration. The third accented syllable alliterates with the first or second, or both. Sometimes Wagner overdoes this, sacrificing sense and lucidity, as in Isolde's Liebestod: In des Wonnenmeeres wogenden Schwall, In des Welt-Atems wehendem All.
At the first Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, Lilli Lehmannm the Woglinde in Rheingold, had the doubtful pleasure of singing the first words in the Ring: Weia! Wag! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege! Wagala weia! Wallala weiala weia. Pretty meaningless in German or any other language; but all criticism is suspended when one listen to the music. Wagner's wonderful orchestra always reflects on, or interprets, never just accompanies, the events on the stage. It delivers a running commentary on the psychology of the characters. This is not Wagner's invention. Monteverdi did it in his stile recitative much earlier, but Wagner brought it to unprecedented perfection. Yet even in his orchestral passages in the Ring, there are sometimes grand opera moments that impress adolescents of all ages—thunder and lightning in Rheingold, the gods' entry into Valhalla—in between moments of great beauty.
Much academic nonsense had been written about Wagner's use of the leitmotif. Wagner didn't invent it—Monteverdi had already used recurrent themes, and so did Grétry and Gluck—but he developed the principle and used it with astonishing freedom. His leitmotifs are not musical clichés; he never used them rigidly or mechanically, as one would assume after studying some German guidebooks and commentaries. Wagner uses leitmotifs to express psychological happenings, using them to build up his amazing symphonic technique. Debussy called the leitmotifs visiting cards, and it is true that sometimes Wagner used them absurdly. When Brünhilde is torn by wild passion in the third act of Siegfried, one suddenly hears the dragon motif. Some people think it might have been a private joke, but Wagner's humor wasn't very subtle, except in Meistersinger, when he suddenly impresses us with wonderful nuances of humor (but everything about Wagner is unpredictable—for every one of his rules, there are many exceptions). In the prelude to Götterdämmerung, Siegmund's and Sieglinde's love theme is used skillfully and concurrently with Brünhilde's devotion to Grane, the horse. Such inconsistencies prove that it would be absurd to interpret Wagner's creative genius literally, through mathematically used leitmotifs. Wagner was no bookkeeper but a genius.
When he is carried away by inspiration on a magnificent scale, which happens often in his late works, he writes wonderful symphonic music of such sensuous beauty and passionate power that one should close one's eyes and surrender. The problem of listening to Wagner is that total theater demands total immersion. If we are to get the full benefit from Wagner's operas, we have to simultaneously identify ourselves with what we hear and see on stage...and to distance ourselves. In 1854, having evolved his aesthetic principles, Wagner began to write Götterdämmerung, the last day of his tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he tackle first. When he found that too many things remained unexplained, he went backward Siegfried (which happens earlier than Götterdämmerung). After that second act of Siegfried, he became involved in the conflict between the principles he had written and the music he was inspired to write. He gave up Siegfried, and resumed work on it only twelve years later, after he's written Tristan und Isolde and Meistersinger, two totally different masterpieces, each unsurpassed in its own way. Tristan remains the greatest orgy of love ever written for the stage, and Meistersinger is a wonderful romantic comedy—and the only work of Wagner's whose characters are not artificial heroes, gods and dwarves, but real human beings (Wagner called it, rightly, his perfectest masterpiece).
And suddenly he went back to the interrupted Siegfried, and when he'd finished and there were more things to say he went farther backwards and wrote Die Walküre, and finally Rheingold, which opens the tetralogy. Such achievements imply hard work. In his working habits, Wagner was a bourgeois—pedantic, writing clean pages, keeping regular hours; but in his conception he was entirely the opposite.
Tristan und Isolde completely reverses Wagner's lofty theories on the poet ruling the musician. Tristan is a musical masterpiece. The music—the orchestra—always comes first. The words often retard the plot or, at worst, create boredom. No one goes to Tristan to listen to the poetry. It's the music that matters.
Meistersinger is Wagner's finest work. The libretto had genuine humor and great poetic beauty and the music both drama and charm. It is everything a comic opera should be, though not according to Wagner's theories—but fortunately he didn't bother about those when writing the work. Compared the hallucinations of the suffering, feverish Tristan, who is an artificial creation and a bore, Hans Sachs is real and human, and proof that Wagner was a poet. Ironically, Sachs reaches greatness not when he is on stage, during the Fliedermonolog or Wahnmonolog, but when he is talking to Eva, or to Stolsing, or in the quintet of the third act
All composer are glad to be performed; Wagner, however, the incurable egomaniac—Thomas Mann called him a theatromaniac— demanded to be performed in his own shrine, a monument to his Musikdrama, and—as he later saw it—a Valhalla to the German Empire that had emerged in 1870. Wagner, the former revolutionary, had come full circle. He had been in Bayreuth as in impecunious twenty-two-year-old conductor one summer evening in 1835, and exclaimed, Ten horses couldn't pull me away from here; he was given to extravagant statements even at that early age. Within a day or so he set our for Nuremberg, to conduct a concert, and he didn't return for thirty-five years. In 1870, when he was trying to finish the Ring, he revisited Bayreuth. He'd for some time wanted a theater of his own. I'm going to build my own house and educate my own artists, he wrote. I don't care how long it takes. He went to Bayreuth to see whether its baroque Margravian opera house, which then had the largest opera stage in Germany would answer his requirements. He immediately decided it wouldn't. The auditorium was too small and the acoustics were nothing special. Then he walked up the nearby Green Hill, a wooded slope a mile north of town, and concluded that its summit would make a splendid setting for his theater. Nowhere else! Only here! he said. The city fathers of Bayreuth, overwhelmed by his enthusiasm, made him a present of the site. On March 22, 1872, the cornerstone was laid. Wagner composed his won Imperial march for the occasion, and afterwards he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, his favorite. He was convinced he had a mandate from Beethoven.
The Festspielhaus was opened on August 13, 1876. On opening day there was formal procession of notables and musicians from the center of Bayreuth to the top of the Green Hill. The first festival was an artistic success but a financial failure (the deficit was 150,000 marks), and Wagner couldn't afford to put on another until 1882, the year before his death. On July 26, Parsifal was first performed. Wagner had assembled a topnotch cast; Hermann Winkelmann (Parsifal), Amalie Materna (Kundry), Emil Scaria (Gurnemanz), and Theodor Reichmann (Amfortas). The honor of conducting this Christian Bühnenweihfestspiel was given to Hermann Levi, a Jew. Parsifal is really two things, depending on whether one is exposed to it in the mysterious dimness of the Festspielhaus or analyses it in the cool light of next morning. As a spectacle, it is an emotional experience with moments of indescribable beauty. It is impossible not to be moved by he Transformation Scene, the scene of the flower maidens, the divine beauty of the good Friday music. But afterwards one has second thoughts. There are times when it becomes a children's play for retarded adults. The mumbo-jumbo around the Holy Grail is strictly late Cecil B. De Mille. Parsifal is only sincere in the passages where the composer's imagination triumphed over the self-imposed religious-metaphysical bonds, where the irrepressible creative force of the musician overcame the calculating preoccupations of the thinker: everywhere else Parsifal is false and mere theatralism. Wagner is a better magician that Klingsor, the magician in Parsifal. Klingsor remains a parody. Wagner hypnotizes us with beautiful music.
Perhaps he isn't the composer of logical-thinking people—and thus will always be assured of a worldwide audience and perennial popularity, though he will have his ups and downs. Richard Wagner raises the philosophical, ethical question whether genius makes badness permissible in man. And perhaps this question cannot be answered simply, but one thing is sure. Richard Wagner was a complex man whose music and whose ethics will amaze, baffle and intrigue audiences for years to come.
Detwiler, Harriet The History of Opera. New York; Barrett Press, 1978.