This is the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth in Leipzig: he was born on May 22, 1813. I’ve seen a few passing references to the event online, and there’s music festivals all over the places. The impact of Wagner on Western culture is difficult to underestimate: he was not only a great composer and librettist, but a passionate failed revolutionary and a ground breaking anti-Semite. The Ride of the Valkyries is one of the few pieces of orchestral music that’s still widely recognizable, and the Wedding March from Lohengrin is still a cliché for weddings.
Wagner’s musical career started slowly with many failures before he was able to make his vision come true. His concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, a multi-media artistic presentation, a total work of art where the individual arts of music, dance, poetry and theater all contribute to a greater whole, has affected opera ever since, and music in general all the way to avant-garde music, film scores (such as the John Williams scores for the Star Wars series) and popular music videos. His mastery of orchestration is unparalleled, his use of melody for dramatic affect groundbreaking, and his use of harmony strains the definitely of common practice major/minor tonality. Even artists that were radically different than he, such as Brahms, respected him: Brahms called a halt to a rehearsal he was conducting when he learned of Wagner’s death.
Once I went to a performance of Das Rheingold because many of my friends were in the cast. I’ll never do that again unless I get a free ticket to Bayreuth, and then I’d only go to observe the culture of that pilgrimage spot. My assessment is similar to Rossini’s: Wagner has beautiful moments but terrible quarter hours. My fellow Missourian Mark Twain expressed ambivalence of Wagner’s music as well.
The story of the Ring cycle is drawn from the same source material J.R.R. Tolkein used for his great work. While the Lord of the Rings is primarily a tale of hope and the triumph of virtue, Wagner’s Ring is about the tragedy of the lust for power. The ideology Wagner creates for his world is a defective one: although it has its sense of honor and virtue, these do little to help its characters and present unattainable goals that frustrate. I would not want to live in the world of Wagner’s Ring, and would hold almost any ideal it presents as one we should get rid of. If you would doubt this, probe deeply into the standards of Nazi Germany, which drew on Wagner as a primary source in their re-creation of the German mythos. Hitler tried to visit Cosima Wagner in 1924 when he got out of prison, an early pilgrim, and his government regularly relocated to Bayreuth for the festival, with Hitler a house guest of the Wagner family.
The character of Wagner is material for psychological journals. He was prejudiced, abusive, manipulative, dishonest and unreliable. He was an incorrigible womanizer and he fathered three children before he married their mother (in a time that wasn’t done). His friends only had value if they were useful to him: when they couldn’t help him, he dropped them. He didn’t have colleagues, he had acolytes. His admirers were expected to give him charity: Nietzsche at the height of his fame as a Wagner apologist was expected to bring the master fine underwear as a gift when he came to visit. He and his wife had the charming idea that conducting his last opera, Parsifal, would convert its Jewish conductor Hermann Levi to Christianity even though the work has some differences with Christian doctrine and the Wagners’ own practice of faith was problematic at best. Wagner’s affect on his inner circle could be summarized in a quote by Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “If there’s anything more important than my ego here, I want it caught and shot.”
Perhaps the worst legacy is his authorship of The Jew in Music, where he renounced the influence of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and tried to devalue their contributions to art. This was published anonymously at first in 1850, but reissued under his name 25 years later. His hatred of Judaism was virulent. It provided a great deal of propaganda material for the Nazi party in the 1930s.
Wagner’s life and work are worth studying: I’ve done it during my musical studies and returned to him during my philosophical and theological study, particularly as I studied Nietzsche, who went from being an apologist to an antagonist of the man. He is either loved or hated; few who know him have neutral opinions of the man and his work. Just as no human can be a perfect angel, no human can be a perfect demon. He does have a very positive legacy as well as a negative one: his music is worth study for the positive aspects of his art; his life is worth study as a case in abnormal psychology and narcissicism. My reflection on his legacy is that we should know him to avoid his example.