Composer of the Month
Michael Scott Rohan passes by the Ring to glimpse the lighter side of Richard Wagner
Wagner. That name still conjures up for many listeners images of ponderous, overblown Teutonicism, of a prototypical Nazi, egocentric, womanising, dishonest, an unspeakable anti-semite. This is the image promoted by popular books such as journalist Joachim Kohler’s 1997 Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple, which made the long-dead composer the moving spirit of Hitler and the Holocaust. Yet only a few years later, something changed. In 2012 Kohler published Den Lachenden Wagner (‘The Laughing Wagner’), wholly revising this grim picture in favour of a genial, generous, liberal, impish figure. And in a 2014 Wagner Journal article he specifically absolved Wagner of any blame for the Holocaust.
So should we, like him, really reassess our whole view of Wagner? For some people it doesn’t matter. ‘Forget the horrible man,’ they’ve said, ‘and listen to the glorious music.’ But many listeners would have problems with that. One of the elements that speaks to us in Wagner’s scores is their intense humanity. If that’s hypocrisy, we can’t listen. We would rather believe in Kohler’s second take on the composer – but should we? How credible is this notion of Wagner Lite?
Generations of biographers hold up their hands in prim horror at Wagner’s extravagance, his shameless cadging and arrogant demands; his string of affairs, often with married women like Mathilde Wesendonck, his benefactor’s wife, and Cosima, wife of his associate Hans von Bülow; at his nationalism; his egocentricity and apparently infinite self-belief; and, of course, his anti-semitic outpourings. Put like that, he sounds like an intolerable charlatan; but that’s exactly what he wasn’t.
Not that his faults weren’t legion, but there are mitigating factors. He had no sense of money and plenty of entitlement; but many great creators have been just as unworldly – Sibelius, for one. Beethoven was also double-dealing, and a miser with it, whereas Wagner was extravagantly generous. And his entitlement was forgivable in an age when even successful composers rarely made a living. Weber worked himself to a miserable death in London to provide for his family; Marschner left his destitute even as his operas were performed throughout Germany. And these were crowd-pleasers, whereas Wagner struggled to create something new and daring. In his day a composer usually earned, for an entire opera, less than its lead tenor received for one performance.
His sex life, too, bears consideration. True, he was unfaithful to his first wife; but she, a pretty, promiscuous actress, had first palmed off an illegitimate daughter as her sister, then decamped with a lover. There are reasons to believe his dalliance with Mathilde was more an intellectual than physical flirtation. His other affairs were chiefly with women unhappily married in an almost divorceless age – even Cosima, who had been more or less married off by her parents, Liszt and the Comtesse d’agoult. In general, Wagner was a serial monogamist, in search of the soulmate he finally found in Cosima. He certainly never behaved as badly as some contemporaries – Verdi, for example, or Offenbach – behind veils of respectability.
Wagner’s nationalism looks particularly suspect through post-nazi eyes. Yet it was born in different times, and wholly different in character. The Germany he celebrated was not a country at all, but a ragbag of squabbling little states torn apart three centuries since by the Thirty Years War. For him, Germany wasn’t supreme; it was the endangered underdog. He hoped for its reunification, not by Bismarck’s military means, which he detested, but by art
and culture. And it didn’t have to be exclusive; he never lost his love and admiration for Italian musicality, especially Rossini. Nor did he want it dictatorial; a romantic socialist revolutionary in his youth, he remained a believer in human brotherhood, strongly drawn to Buddhist doctrine, and instinctively liberal, regarding his many homosexual acquaintances, for example, with amused tolerance. The last words of his libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he chose not to set because the music expresses it better, can be rendered roughly as ‘All you need is love’.
With a sometimes overbearing nature went ebullient charm, energy – mental and physical – and lively sense of humour. Caricatured as a silk-swaddled aesthete, he was equally an athletic type who walked his friends off their feet in the mountains, and even in old age would shin up trees in sheer high spirits. At the first Bayreuth Festival he greeted the Emperor of Brazil, no less, by standing on his head.
So where does all this leave his antisemitism? Kohler sees it as largely an artistic pose, but that’s an excuse too far. The vituperation is shocking – if less violent than some translators rendered it. His outbursts were so unrestrained it’s been suggested he suffered from something like Asperger syndrome. But that said, they have their limits. Wagner never believed in an ‘international Jewish conspiracy’ as some have suggested and was, if anything, less anti-semitic than most Germans of his day. He saw Jews as able, rootless outsiders, a cultural threat only, and once again very much from the underdog’s viewpoint. His remedy was not violent extermination but willing assimilation. One could consider it jealousy of Frenchified Jewish composers like Meyerbeer and Offenbach, except that he admired Halévy, who was both, compared his old adversary Offenbach to Mozart, and, while lambasting Mendelssohn, allowed him ‘amplest talent… finest culture… highest honour’. And, as Kohler points out, Wagner appears positively pro-semitic personally, with a host of Jewish friends and colleagues, some of whom lived with him and his family; he even considered handing over his beloved Bayreuth to the Jewish impresario Angelo Neumann, and before his death embraced his long-suffering conductor Hermann Levi in loving farewell. He wasn’t a racist in the general sense; while he was interested in contemporary doctrines of racial superiority, he didn’t altogether accept them. He hated slavery, for example, and hoped for a Northern victory in the US Civil War.
If all this makes Wagner sound inconsistent, complicated, self-contradictory, that’s about right. In the poet Walt Whitman’s phrase, he ‘contained multitudes’. But where can we
look for the essential man – the real root of his creative genius? It has to be in his music – the most profoundly personal thing he ever produced, far more deeply felt and imagined than his often cranky writings. Here, if anywhere, is the essence, and what we find can be surprising.
His early works were light, comic, fantastic, un-germanic. Adapted from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot (‘The Love Ban’) pits a cold, hypocritical German governor against happily sensuous Sicilians, to music influenced by Rossini and Donizetti. Die Feen (‘The Fairies’) is based on an Italianate fairy tale by Gozzi, author of the original Turandot, and Rienzi, his first great success, mixes influences from Meyerbeer and Rossini with his own developing style.
This burgeons in the great operas, beginning with Der fliegende Holländer (‘The Flying Dutchman’), but the feelings which drive it are all the more intense. Der fliegende Holländer depicts an accursed wanderer in search of real love, Tannhäuser the conflict between an artist’s spiritual and sensual drives, Lohengrin, once again, the conflict between the worldly and the sublime. Throughout the grim Nordic legends of the Ring, even gods, dwarves and spirits become vividly human in the intricately woven score, with threads of humour, especially in the figure of Siegfried, heroic but naïve. And listen to the soaring final bars of Götterdämmerung with those unset words of love and transcendence in mind.
Tristan und Isolde, written amidst emotional conflict, yearns darkly for love and death; but offsetting it, shortly after, is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This is Wagner’s most Germanic, most nationalist opera; but significantly, it’s also a radiant, kindly comedy, which pokes gentle fun at a conservative artistic institution, disrupted by an ardent young newcomer. Only the genial cobbler-poet Hans Sachs accepts him, and restores harmony. He values peaceful Nuremberg against the era’s growing conflicts, and foresees that terrible Thirty Years War in a final speech often misinterpreted – especially by the Nazis – as ultra-nationalist; but he very specifically looks to art to save an embattled Germany, rejecting force of arms. Even here Wagner quotes his beloved Rossini, basing the apprentices’ dance on the Italian’s aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’. Die Meistersinger’s malevolent town clerk, Beckmesser, is not now generally regarded as a Jewish caricature as he once was; but there’s no doubt that
Parsifal, Wagner’s final masterwork, does reflect aspects of his prejudices in the ‘Wandering Jewess’ Kundry. She, though, is well-meaning and tragic, misused by others; Gurnemanz, voice of wisdom, rebukes persecutors with ‘How has she ever harmed you?’ As a whole, Parsifal, a Christian legend reshaped in pantheistic and even Buddhist guise, radiates resignation, pacifism and transcendence throughout its score. Its central motif, Wagner told Cosima, represented ‘loving revelation’ spreading throughout the world. No wonder the Nazis tacitly banned it.
But although the music amply confirms Wagner’s brighter aspects, it is still fair to suggest that Kohler, having gone too far in one direction, swings equally far back in the other. Wagner Lite and Wagner Lumpen are, honestly, indissoluble. We should expect no less; great art is rarely created by saints, but by outsize personalities, with, inevitably, outsize flaws. A saint could hardly have created the Ring. And if he had, we’d almost certainly never have heard it. That infernal self-belief, that vast egocentricity, was the sole guiding star of a man driven by the awareness of masterworks he alone could bring to birth, through poverty, scorn and constraints that would have broken a lesser man.
Die Meistersinger is a radiant, kindly comedy, which pokes gentle fun
in high standing: Wagner (centre) with his wife Cosima and her father Liszt at the Wahnfried villa in Bayreuth