Why is Wagner’s significance as a composer so unique? Wagner is the creator of a new art form, and the center of a new cult. The gigantic quality of his myth-making, and its function as a substitute religion, represented an entirely new artistic experience. There was a cult about his person, and the devotion to him was already impressive during his lifetime.
Nietzsche was the sharpest observer of Wagner. Nietzsche and Wagner represent a wave of late romantic irrationalism in Europe, from the lat 1870s onward. Nietzsche was intoxicated by Wagner. Nietzsche’s greatest experience was a recovery, he says. Wagner was merely one of his sicknesses, we are told. When Nietzsche says that Wagner is harmful, but he adds that for others he is indispensable. Others may be able to get along without Wagner, but the philosopher is not free to do without him.
Nietzsche also realized that Wagner would seduce the Germans. I quote, “Above all: German youths understand him. The two words ‘infinite’ and ‘meaning’ were sufficient. They induced a state of unconquerable well-being among men.” It was not with his music that Wagner conquered. It was with the idea. It was the enigmatic character of his art, his playing “hide-and-seek behind a hundred symbols”, his polychromy of the ideal that leads and lures these youths to Wagner. It’s “Wagner’s genius for shaping clouds, his whirling, hurling and twirling through the air–He’s everywhere and nowhere.” These are the very same means by which “Hegel formerly seduced and lured them.”
On one interpretation, this marks the beginning a catastrophe which ends with millions of corpses and the smoking ruins of German cities. There has never been a composer like Wagner, both unique and perhaps ‘disastrous’. Historians of philosophy and translators who interpret Nietzsche positively, like the great Robert Solomon and Walter Kaufman, argue that the connection with Nazi Germany is moot. Nazis of course disagree.
I am listening now to “Music for the Sigfried Iddle” which Wagner’s birthday present for his wife, Cosoma, in 1850. It’s one of the finest expressions of love ever.
Interpreting Wagner positively in a political sense is difficult. Wagner wrote that one of his patrons has remained loyal to his interests. His way of repaying his patron was to suppress the story and write a very anti-Semitic pamphlet, “The Jews in Music”. His anti-Semitism became a prominent feature of his worldview and later endeared his arts to Hitler and the Nazis. It belongs to that current of economic anti-Semitism which was a reaction to the explosion of Jewish wealth in Europe. Nietzsche’s views regarding Jews had more to do with the rise of Christian morality, and by extension, perhaps this is the best way to interpret Wagner’s views too.
Wagner had originally been a radical and a liberal, favorable to Jewish emancipation, which he later repented.
“According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipated. He rules, and will rule so long as money remains the power before which all our doings and dealing lose their force. That the historical adversity of the Jews and the rapacious rawness of Christian-German potencies have brought this power within the hands of Israel’s sons. This needs no argument of ours to prove. That the impossibility of carrying further any natural, any necessary and truly beauteous thing upon the basis of that stage, where at the evolution of our art has now arrived, and without a total alienation of that basis.”
According to Wagner, the Jew (always in the abstract), corrupts art by turning it into a market for art commodities. The theme, repeated ad nauseam, reflects the romantic distaste for the fact that even the genius has to sell tickets. Wagner’s radical anti-capitalism was directed towards the Jews and the key figure was Nathan Meyer Rothschild and his brothers. The Jew corrupted art and culture by money. The Jew corrupted pure speech. Jews are unable to speak German properly. The German verb for “mumble” is how it is defined in politically correct dictionaries. But the original sense meant ‘to speak like a Jew’, or to sound like Yiddish.
Wagner commented freely on the way the Jew corrupts German culture with his writings. The Jew speaks German as an alien as a “creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle. Add there too an employment of words in a sense quite foreign to our nation’s tongue in an arbitrary twisting of the structure of our phrases, and this mode of speaking acquires at once the character of an entirely jumbled blabber.” So Wagner hears Jewish talk and his attention is on how he is speaking, but not what is being said.
Wagner was one of the first prophets of modern antisemitism. His art rejected reason, free markets, private property, capitalism, commerce, and social mobility. And for all that, the Jews were emblematic. Wagner opposed the modern world by transforming the Romantic enthusiasms for simple peasants and rural life into the cult of the folk, the pure people. The folk were the pure source of culture. And Wagner indulged in this Romantic glorification of the folk, just as the Nazis later did. “The true poet… gains his stimulus from nothing but a faithful, loving contemplation of instinctive life of that life which only greets his sight among the folk.” The Jew is not able to reach the essence of the folk, but it is debatable whether Wagner can reach this essence either.
What is the relation between great art and artists who are evil in the eyes of many historians? Some say Wagner was a monster of ingratitude, hypocrisy and deceit, but also a genius. His art expresses racist ideas and cannot be separated from it. Can we enjoy it? How far can Wagner be blamed for what others did with his art? How far can Nietzsche be blamed for what others did with his philosophy?
Wagner threw himself into the revolutions in the 1840s and supported the revolution against the King, his employer. After the revolutions failed, he fled to Switzerland, where he conceived his greatest idea: the new musical drama, the “complete work of art.” It combined and transcended the forms of theatric and operatic art, and he used music to express dialogue. He invented what became to be known as the leitmotif, or “leading theme”, which sets a musical theme to certain events in the opera. The result is that the audience understands the ideas and motivations when the characters are not singing or speaking. They walk up and down the stage, whilst the music is playing, and you understand what they are thinking. In other words he invented a myth, a whole mythology, drawing freely from Nordic and Greek myths.
The plot of The Ring of the Nibelung, begins with three Rhine maidens. A dwarf–a symbol of the Jew–tries to seduce the maidens until the Sun breaks through and displays the Rhine-gold in the water below. Whoever will renounce love can forge a ring from the gold, which confers power over the universe. The dwarf steals it, and this is representative of the capitalist Jews using gold to destroy German culture.
Wagner made The Ring of Nibelung into a stage festival for three straight days. It was understood that one would go to Concert house and undergo a kind of religious experience. The work itself goes on for 16 hours. It was composed of four acts. Wagner won the patronage of the Romantic King of Bavaria, who built Wagner his own temple. Pilgrims, later, were expected to travel there in a religious state of mind.
George Bernard Shaw, an enthusiastic Wagnerian, saw Wagner as a socialist and anti-capitalist. The founders of German democracy saw Wagner as the prophet of a kind of new German anti-capitalism, because the German lower classes had no art of their own. They said that the lower classes should listen to Wagner for its anti-capitalism.
Wagner is a religion. There are people who travel miles to hear Wagner’s music today, wherever it is played. Wherever The Ring plays along any of the cities along the East Coast of the US, many travel to hear it. They hear it over and over, and when they come out of the opera house they feel purified in some way. This is a cultural artifact that has not been seen before. What Wagner represents is a crisis in religion caused by industrialization, the crisis caused by emergence of the mass society for the first time, the tremendous spread of alienation, and the incapacity of the churches to deal with this new kind of paganism.
It’s from this point on that the search for a new religion becomes so intense. If you think about the flags, and the ceremony, and the potency of the Nazi image in the 1930s, what is it but a continuation of the Wagnerian cult of the superman. What Nazism represents is another search for a new religion which will replace failing religions of the past. All the things Wagner was doing with his revolution in music. The Nazis took the ideas of Wagner and Nietzsche and encapsulated them into a revisionist version of the German spirit, the new German, the new European, replacing revolutions in music and revolutions in the human spirit with a radical ideology of force, of paternalism, and of revolutions in science and ethnic purity.
The Case of Wagner troubled Nietzsche and should trouble us too. Wagner created a work so gigantic that it was intended to replace the old religions and purify us from the corruptions of industrial and commercial society. It is not impossible to separate Nazi ideology from the Wagnerian music, even though wherever one hears it, it is accompanied a cultic gathering. Modern Wagnerians are ostensibly not Nazis, at least not necessarily so. Perhaps in a thousand years if you hear Wagner alone you wouldn’t conjure up the images on the Nazi party. But until then his work may still be very troublesome politically, but intriguingly so.