There is a chasm between the popular perception of Wagner and the reality. Wagner is one of music's great thinkersby Michael Prowse / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
one of my formative experiences was reading Bryan Magee’s short book on Karl Popper in a single session. I was in my early 20s and had never imagined that philosophy could be so exciting. Magee’s clear prose and infectious enthusiasm opened up a new world for me. I began to read many other philosophers. Later, I read Magee’s book on Arthur Schopenhauer and was intrigued by an appendix on Wagner.
Since I now count both philosophy and Wagner’s operas as significant sources of pleasure, I have reason to be grateful to Magee. His latest book marks the culmination of his lifelong attempt to interpret Wagner for a British public that-in his view-has never sufficiently appreciated the composer’s genius. He argues that many of Wagner’s admirers misunderstand his later operas because they fail to grasp the degree to which they are influenced by Schopenhauer’s ideas. Meanwhile, many other music lovers labour under so many delusions about Wagner that they refuse even to attend his operas. There is always some gap between the popular perception of an artist and the reality. But in Wagner’s case the gap is a chasm, or so Magee argues.
For instance, people often think of Wagner as an anti-semite and fascist. Why else were performances of his music banned in Israel-until very recently? And why else would the soundtrack of films about the Nazis frequently include loud excerpts from his operas? If his politics were not reason enough to boycott his operas, say the sceptics, one should do so anyway on aesthetic grounds. They are too long. The music is bombastic and overbearing. And the plots are odd concoctions involving gods, dwarfs, dragons and buxom women in armour. These are the fantasies of an unrefined, probably unintelligent, 19th-century German chauvinist.
Wagner was anti-semitic, and to a degree which shocked his friends even at a time when anti-semitism was rife in Europe. This may have something to do with his failure as a young man to get his operas performed in Paris, a city then dominated by Jewish composers. But although this side of his personality cannot be excused, I agree with Magee that it shouldn’t affect our judgment of his music. There is little that is discernibly anti-semitic in his operas. And the link between Wagner and the Nazis is exaggerated. Hitler idolised the composer but few other top Nazis shared his passion: performances of Wagner operas actually declined in frequency during the Nazi era. In any case the fact that a bad man likes something or someone does not make that thing or person bad. If Hitler had loved Shakespeare, would we have banned his plays? Wagner cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of Germany decades after his death.
In any case the notion that Wagner was a proto-fascist is misguided. In his youth and early middle age he was a socialist with anarchist leanings. He became a friend of Bakunin and helped organise the Dresden insurrection of 1849. When the revolution failed, the authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, and Wagner fled to Switzerland, his career in ruins. As the years passed, he outgrew his early idealism, but he became apolitical, not right wing. Influenced by Schopenhauer, he turned inward and ceased to see art as a means for changing the world.
The idea that Wagner lacked intellectual refinement is ludicrous, Magee argues. No great composer was more interested in ideas. In fact for much of his life, Wagner was better known for his theoretical works on art than for his music. While in exile he wrote some of his greatest operas, but as a penniless refugee he was in no position to get them staged. If he was known at all it was for books such as Opera and Drama (1851) in which he advanced controversial theories about the relationship between music and the other arts-theories that he was later to amend. His fortunes did not change until 1864 when he attracted the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. After years of poverty and neglect, the 51-year-old Wagner was now in business.
Magee regards Wagner’s discovery of Schopenhauer-while composing Die Walk?re-as a watershed. Before that he had been influenced mainly by “Left Hegelians” such as Feuerbach. When Wagner embarked on his Ring cycle, he saw the world very much as Feuerbach had described it in The Essence of Christianity (1841). He was an empiricist who believed that the physical world is all that there is. There is no God or transcendental realm: all religions are figments of the human imagination. He regarded morals as social constructs designed to meet human needs. And he believed that our love for others is what ultimately gives life meaning. All of these beliefs found expression in the Ring.
Schopenhauer changed everything. His philosophy is based on that of Kant, and Kant did believe in a transcendental realm. Kant argued that the way that we experience things depends both on their intrinsic nature and on the nature of our perceptual and conceptual apparatus. The way things seem to us is thus not really the way things are “in themselves.” Space, time and even causality are forms of human understanding rather than part of the intrinsic fabric of things. Behind the everyday world of experience there lies a “noumenal” realm of “things in themselves” about which we can have no direct knowledge.
Schopenhauer adapted Kantian theory in various ways. Most importantly he identified this “thing in itself” with the will that is present in all living creatures. Schopenhauer thus argued that our individuation as separate persons is an illusion: in reality we are all one, because we are all representations of the same underlying reality. Echoing eastern religions, Schopenhauer argued further that the path to happiness lies in suppressing our desires and in renouncing the will that courses through all of us. Schopenhauer’s attraction for Wagner was doubtless enhanced because of his doctrine that music has a special place among the arts. It is far more important than poetry or drama or painting, he argued, because it is a direct manifestation of the will.
Schopenhauer’s teachings found an immediate echo in Wagner’s art. When he resumed work on the Ring cycle, he gave the orchestra a far more important role, and dropped any pretence of treating the libretto on a par with the score. The heavier orchestration in Götterd??mmerung than in Das Rheingold is a sign of Schopenhauer’s influence. And the three operas that Wagner composed after his encounter with Schopenhauer-Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal-each bear the philosopher’s stamp. In Tristan, for instance, the lovers achieve peace only in the death that ends their individuation. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs, the cobbler-hero, renounces his desire for a woman and helps a younger rival win her hand in marriage. In Parsifal, Wagner himself finally seems to achieve an inner peace of a kind that Schopenhauer envisaged. His music becomes more serene.
Alongside the discussion of Schopenhauer, there is a good chapter on Nietzsche. Nietzsche did not much influence Wagner, who was the senior party in the relationship. Magee suggests, indeed, that Nietzsche picked up most of the ideas for The Birth of Tragedy from Wagner.
I have some criticisms. One is that at times Magee’s enthusiasm is excessive. He repeatedly describes Wagner as “one of the supreme geniuses of all time,” as having an intellect of “utterly exceptional capaciousness, depth and power,” and so on. Magee should also have been less partisan in his philosophy. His view of Kant (and Schopenhauer) is idiosyncratic. He thinks that Kant’s case for a noumenal realm is all but undeniable. But this is not the conventional wisdom. Most philosophers now are closer to Feuerbach’s empiricism than Kant’s transcendental idealism. It is true that how we perceive objects depends on how our brains and perceptual organs are structured, but that does not alter the fact that the objects that we perceive are physical objects in the empirical world. The notion that behind these objects there is another order of “things in themselves” that are unknowable by definition is now thought bizarre. But that does not detract from the greatness of the music that Wagner composed while under Schopenhauer’s influence, nor the attractions of Magee’s panegyric.