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The Problem With Redemption for Wagner

Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, and WEB Du Bois all drew on his work. Hitler was his most fateful disciple. Has the composer’s legacy been misunderstood?


At the beginning of Siegfried, the third opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung cycle, the dwarf Mime is trying to repair a magic sword that was broken to pieces in the previous installment. But every time he offers the sword to Siegfried, the young hero easily shatters it again: “What use is this shiny sharpness / If the steel’s not hard and true!” he complains. Finally Siegfried takes matters into his own hands: Instead of welding the pieces back together, he grinds them into powder and reforges the metal. Armed with a weapon that is both old and new, he is able to slay the dragon Fafnir and rescue Brünnhilde from her prison of fire.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
By Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 784 pp., $40.00

Wagner wrote several manifestos, but this scene offers the best defense of his artistic philosophy: In order to carry on the great tradition of German music, he had to remake it completely. Wagner worshipped Beethoven, but he didn’t follow Beethoven’s example by writing symphonies and string quartets. Instead he aspired to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art” drawing on the resources of music, poetry, drama, and the visual arts. Music-dramas like Tristan und Isolde, the Ring cycle, and Parsifal used new harmonies and musical structures to create unprecedented effects. Never before had there been a musical evocation of sexual passion like the Prelude to Tristan, or of martial frenzy like the “Ride of the Valkyries.”

But it wasn’t only his music that made Wagner the favorite composer of radicals and avant-gardists in the nineteenth century. It was the way he infused music with political and philosophical ideas. In 1848, when he was 35, Wagner took such an active part in the democratic revolution sweeping Germany that he was exiled, like his near-contemporary Karl Marx. In his essay “Art and Revolution,” Wagner explained that political renewal depended on artistic renewal and vice versa. Both aimed at the creation of a new human type, “the strong fair man, to whom revolution shall give his strength, and art his beauty!” The “Ring” is, among other things, an allegory of revolution, in which Siegfried, a free man, challenges the corrupt rule of the god Wotan.

It’s also the work in which Wagner went furthest toward making music a vehicle for narrative and ideas. The philosopher Susanne K. Langer argues in her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key, that music, like myth, carries non-semantic meanings that are no less real for being impossible to paraphrase. Beethoven’s late quartets are a profound experience of thought, even though one can’t say what they are thinking “about.” But this non-semantic quality makes classical music a difficult topic for discourse. Listening to it was a private, interior experience long before technology made it possible to hear it in literal isolation, far from performers or audience.

For Wagner, this kind of “absolute music” was retrograde both artistically and politically. The music of the future, which he meant to write, would overcome abstraction and separation. It would be a total experience shared by an organic community, as tragedy was for the ancient Athenians. And a communal art-form requires language, which is why the music-drama must supersede the symphony. Wagner sees this historical process at work in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where a chorus joins the orchestra to sing the words of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” “The continuation of the musical poetry demands resolution, a resolution that can only be articulated in human speech,” Wagner wrote in a program note for a performance of the Ninth.

To achieve such a union of word and sound, Wagner wrote his own librettos, almost uniquely among opera composers. In the Ring cycle, he also employed a system of leitmotifs, short musical phrases that are associated with particular characters, objects, or even ideas, such as fate and renunciation. The technique allows music to function representationally, like a language, underscoring thematic connections and plot developments in remarkably powerful ways.

For instance, the first opera, Das Rheingold, opens with the three Rhinemaidens swimming around the magic treasure they guard, and saluting it with a joyous four-note phrase—“Rheingold! Rheingold!” The same phrase returns at the very end of the opera, now transposed into a minor-key lament, when the Rhinemaidens plead with Wotan, who has seized the gold, to return it to them. But their song is drowned out by the orchestra, playing a thunderous rendition of a different motif—the Valhalla theme, associated with the majestic palace of the gods. It’s an unforgettable critique of exploitation and the arrogance of power, expressed in purely musical terms.

By making music ideological and semantic in new ways, Wagner made it much easier to talk and write about—which is one reason why he has always been so appealing to intellectuals. A book like Alex Ross’s Wagnerism, a survey of Wagner’s influence on art and ideas over the last 150 years, could not be written about any other composer. Most people would agree that Mozart was a greater genius than Wagner, but there’s no such thing as Mozartism. Or maybe that’s exactly why there’s no such thing as Mozartism: Mozart’s music wants to be music, while Wagner’s wants to be a national myth, a fatal trance, a utopian vision. When you see The Marriage of Figaro, you may feel elevated, even awed, but you’re not likely to decide it’s your destiny to become the savior of your country, as the young Adolf Hitler reportedly did after seeing Wagner’s Rienzi.

One of the goals of Wagnerism, however, is to disrupt the habitual association of Wagner with Hitler, the Meister with the Fuhrer. “The danger inherent in the incessant linking of Wagner to Hitler,” Ross argues, “is that it hands the Fuhrer a belated cultural victory—exclusive possession of the composer he loved.” It’s true that Hitler was far from alone in admiring Wagner—the sheer length and scope of Wagnerism proves that. But he was Wagner’s most fateful disciple by far, and the deep compatibility between Wagnerism and Nazism reveals something essential about the composer that lovers of his music have no choice but to reckon with.

Ross’s impressive research has uncovered hundreds upon hundreds of Wagnerian references, allusions, and influences in the art and literature of the last 150 years—some famous and significant, others just curious. The book is packed with descriptions of paintings, plot summaries, and biographical anecdotes, from Baudelaire and Whitman all the way to Philip K. Dick and Apocalypse Now. At times this plenitude threatens to make Wagnerism read like an encyclopedia. But Ross also offers insightful discussions of Wagner’s most significant legacies—for theater direction and narrative technique, for feminism and queer culture, and for revolutionary politics.

In the years before World War I, Ross shows, having some kind of position on Wagner was obligatory. As Auden said of Freud in a later generation, he wasn’t just a person “but a whole climate of opinion.” For the pioneering sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, listening to Wagner was a badge of gay identity; for Madame Bla­vatsky, the founder of Theosophy, his music held mystical meanings; for August Bebel, who helped create Germany’s Social Democratic Party, he was a prophet of socialism. Otto Weininger, the suicidal Viennese philosopher, called Wagner “the greatest man since Christ’s time,” while John Philip Sousa, the March King, summed him up approvingly as “a brass-band man, anyway.”

As Wagnerism travels further from the composer’s own time and place, his influence becomes more diffuse, having less to do with his actual ideas and context than with what he came to represent. In the United States, Wagnerites saw the sublimity of his music as a rebuke to the materialism and philistinism that surrounded them. One of the longest sustained analyses in the book is devoted to Willa Cather, who is usually thought of as a regionalist, a chronicler of hard lives on the desolate Plains. But she was also, Ross argues, one of the most important literary Wagnerites: “Among major authors, only Thomas Mann knew his Wagner better.” The influence is clearest in her 1915 novel, The Song of the Lark, whose heroine Thea Kronborg is based on the soprano Olive Fremstad, Cather’s friend. The novel traces the development of Thea’s artistic calling, which carries her from barren Moonstone, Colorado, to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where she triumphs in Wagnerian roles. But Cather suggests that this distance isn’t as far as it seems: Thea’s experience of the rugged landscapes of the American West helps her to understand Wagner’s primal, mythic characters. For Cather, as for other gay and lesbian writers, Wagner’s operas also offered models of what would now be called gender fluidity: Brünnhilde is a woman playing the traditionally masculine role of warrior, while Parsifal rejects the seductress Kundry in favor of the male society of the Grail Knights.

A dozen years before The Song of the Lark, W.E.B. Du Bois devoted a chapter of The Souls of Black Folk to a fictional sketch in which a young African American, John Jones, attends a Wagner concert in New York and has a profound experience of the meaning of freedom:

A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood! Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?

Ross calls this kind of fictional moment, in which a character reaches an epiphany thanks to the power of Wagner’s music, a “Wagner Scene,” and he finds many of them in the literature of the period. For John Jones, however, the epiphany is shattered when he feels an usher’s tap on his shoulder. He is being evicted from the concert, ostensibly because he was sold someone else’s seat by mistake, but the real reason is obvious. “John Jones, you’re a natural-born fool,” he tells himself—foolish for believing that the freedom of art could prevail over American racism.

As Wagnerism moves into the post–World War I period and beyond, such direct confrontations with the operas become scarcer. Wagner Scenes are replaced by allusions: “The Waste Land” quotes several lines in German from Tristan und Isolde and includes a parody of the Rhinemaidens. Ross cites a scholar who found 178 allusions to the Ring and 242 to Tristan in Finnegans Wake. In addition to such hyperspecific references, Ross traces broad thematic affinities: The Modernists’ interest in myth and stream-of-consciousness narration can be given a Wagnerian genealogy.

But the figure from this period who was most unambiguously indebted to Wagner was Hitler, and Ross eventually has to reckon with what he calls the “Wagner-Hitler problem.” The problem isn’t simply that Hitler loved Wagner’s music, though he did. In Mein Kampf, he recalled that his passion began when he first saw Lohengrin as a teenager: “I was captivated at one stroke. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds.” As a soldier in World War I, Hitler later claimed, he carried the score of Tristan in his pack and would use it to conduct imaginary performances.

Hitler also loved Beethoven and Bruckner, and those composers haven’t been tainted by the association. The real problem isn’t that Wagner went into the making of Hitler, but that, in the words of Thomas Mann, “there is much ‘Hitler’ in Wagner.” Wagner died in 1883, too early to be a National Socialist, but he was certainly a nationalist and a socialist. His operas revolve around concepts like destiny, glorious death, renewal through destruction, and the solitary hero who is above the law, all of which played a key role in the fascist imagination. The overwhelming quality of Wagner’s music—the huge orchestra, thunderous brasses, intoxicating crescendos—created a template for the titanic pageantry of the Nazi rallies held every year in Nuremberg, a city chosen by Hitler because of its association with Wagner’s opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

That opera played an important role in creating the German nationalist myth of a lost organic community. In Wagner’s medieval Nuremberg, there is no separation between art and life—the town’s leading singer, Hans Sachs, earns his living as a shoemaker. Nor is there any separation between the classes—though a craftsman, Sachs becomes a mentor to the knightly hero Walther von Stolzing. The opera is a comedy, the only major one Wagner wrote, because it ends in reconciliation. Sachs teaches Walther the rules of the singers’ guild, allowing him to win their contest and the hand of his beloved Eva, while Walther teaches the guild the importance of innovation, as demonstrated in his rule-breaking Prize Song. Like Siegfried with his sword, Walther has to take musical convention apart in order to build it on a stronger foundation—just as Wagner saw himself doing in the nineteenth century.

The threat to this utopian community comes from the outside, as Hans Sachs explains in his final monologue:

Beware! Evil tricks threaten us:
if the German people and kingdom should one day decay,
under a false, foreign rule
soon no prince would understand his people;
and foreign mists with foreign vanities
they would plant in our German land;
what is German and true none would know.

For Wagner, there was no doubt about the identity of the evil tricksters threatening what Sachs calls “holy German art.” He had named them as early as 1850, in his essay “Judaism in Music,” which stands with Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” (1843) as a foundational text of modern antisemitism. Jews, Wagner writes, can never share in the genius of the German people, only imitate it badly—the way the villain of The Master­singers, Sixtus Beckmesser, incompetently imitates Walther’s song. And since art and society are intimately linked, Wagner saw the success of Jewish composers like Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer as an index of social decay. “Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgment in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then indeed that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect-life: but who, in looking on that body’s self would hold it still for living?” he asks.

The essay concludes by warning the Jews that the only way they can “redeem” themselves from their “curse” is by their “Untergang.” The word literally means “going under,” but, as Ross explains, it “can mean descent, decline, downfall, or destruction.” He cautions against reading this as a call for physical annihilation of the Jews, but the idea wasn’t foreign to Wagner. Later in Wagnerism, Ross quotes a passage from the diary of the composer’s wife, Cosima, in which Wagner reacts to the news that “four hundred Jews have died in a theater fire in Vienna” with a joke that all Jews should be burned at a performance of Nathan the Wise—an eighteenth-century play that famously pleaded for religious tolerance.

Wagner’s lifelong hatred of Jews was another reason why he appealed to Hitler, who turned those threats and jokes into reality. Does this mean that there is some essential connection between Wagner and Hitler, sublimity and cruelty, revolution and annihilation? Wagnerism wants the answer to be no: “To blame Wagner for the horrors committed in his wake is an inadequate response to historical complexity; it lets the rest of civilization off the hook,” Ross writes in his “Postlude.” This is true, of course, but perhaps it also reflects the skepticism of our age, which finds it hard to imagine that art once had the power to change the world.