Wagner: ring of change

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(380)

The musical dramas of Richard Wagner, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year, are among the most popular works of classical music today. They are regularly staged at all the major opera houses, and tickets sell out fast.

Yet he remains a deeply problematic artist. For a great many people he and his music have become indelibly associated with anti-Semitism and Nazism. His works remain largely banned in Israel. Almost any documentary about Hitler and Nazi Germany will at some point mention Wagner as a cultural inspiration, and Hitler's devotion to the composer in particular.

While unfortunately there are links at many levels between Wagner and the Nazis, to reduce Wagner's life and art to a form of proto-fascism is far too simplistic. Moreover, it misses aspects of Wagner that are genuinely revolutionary.

When Wagner arrived on the scene in the 1840s, European music was at crisis point. The legacy of Beethoven cast a long shadow. It was felt that, with him, music as the expression of grand themes, of heroic events, had reached its highest point.

Those who followed, such as Mendelssohn and Schumann, intimidated by Beethoven's grand style, turned instead to much more intimate forms. In contrast, there was also the rise of populist composers such as Rossini, Meyerbeer and Paganini.

The age of music as the expression of history on the move appeared to be at an end. This development mirrored the decline of the great wave of European revolutions that began in 1789 and ended with Napoleon's final defeat in 1815.

At first Wagner experimented with a number of composing styles, mainly pastiches of Italian and French opera. He had also become well established as head of the opera house in Dresden. His politics radicalised - he became known as "The Red Conductor" - and he developed a friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

When European revolution broke out again in 1848, Wagner played a central role in the uprising in Dresden. The collapse of the uprising forced him to flee into exile.

It was at this time that Wagner's politics and art made a decisive turn. For two years he struggled to come to terms with the defeat of the revolution. He published an article anonymously entitled "Jews in Music". This revolting anti-Semitic diatribe attacked Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn for being rootless. Wagner argued that this made them unable to produce truly great art, which he considered necessarily national in character.

At the same time, Wagner began work on his monumental four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung". Again, this can be seen as a response to the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. Its major themes are love, greed and betrayal. The key event that drives the whole saga is the theft of gold from the bottom of the Rhine, where it had hitherto been worshiped solely for its beauty. The character of Alberich renounces love in order to unleash the gold's power, and with that power he subjects his fellow Nibelungs, a race of subterranean dwarfs, to industrial servitude.

The music that accompanies the slaves at work was inspired by the grinding sounds Wagner heard on a visit to the London docks. The gold is further debased when the warrior Wotan uses it to pay for the construction of Walhalla. As a result, Wotan establishes global dominance by the gods, and the subjection of nature to law. It is clear why George Bernard Shaw characterised "The Ring" as an anti-capitalist parable.

Wagner's reaction to the failure of the 1848 revolutions thus combined a romantic anti-capitalism that harked back to a mythical world of nature, and a virulent racism and ultra-nationalism. Defeat in World War One and the failure of the European revolutions reinforced the identification of Wagner with the rise of fascism.

The identification of the Nazis with Wagner is thus not accidental. However, what distinguishes the two is that whereas Hitler and the Nazis were always reactionaries and committed enemies of revolution, Wagner had been in the vanguard of a revolution before turning to reactionary politics.

The struggle between these two elements is a fascinating theme in Wagner's art, nowhere more so than in "The Ring". Musically, along with his celebration of erotic love, "Tristan and Isolde", this represents a revolution in Western music. They showed a way forward that transcended the high romanticism of Beethoven's late works and re-established classical music as the vehicle for the expression of grand historical themes.

His final work, "Parsifal" inspired Claude Debussy to create his ethereal style. Ironically, the modernism that the Nazis later banned as "degenerate music" was the logical outcome of Wagner's revolution in music.

It is not a matter of separating Wagner's art and politics. Such a thing is impossible, especially in the case of someone as dedicated to expressing his view of the world through his art as Wagner was. His passions and contradictions ultimately made him into a repugnant character at both the political and personal level.

But they also made his music incredibly sensuous, hypnotic and exciting. Wagner the man and Wagner the artist are too complex and fascinating to be left to the mediocrities of fascism.