Friday, February 22, 2013

The Wagner Caveat

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. This is my introduction to that topic. A short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges is here. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer part 1 here, part 2 herehis problems with money and, consequently, friendship is herethe charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here; the issue of anti-Semitism is herethe first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

Over the past several decades, in virtually everything written about Wagner (except, bless them, Wikipedia), there is a caveat about his character, no matter what the subject matter. Usually the caveat comes at the very beginning. Here is a example, par for the course unfortunately, from a book called Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil Goulding. Now, the book is intended for the general audience and is not academic in nature. This is the beginning of the generally positive review of Wagner's music (ranked 4th on his list by the way): 
Richard Wagner was a dreadful human being. He was a liar, a cheat, a wife-stealer, a home-wrecker, and a betrayer of friends. He was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-French. He was immoral and dis-honorable. No one in music had a bigger ego, and he properly belongs high on the list of the World's Most Unpleasant men.
Or here is another one from another introductory book, Opera for Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck :
How do you assess a person like Richard Wagner? He was an arrogant, dishonest, jealous, hypocritical, racist, sexist, and passionately anti-Semitic human being.
Ok, just one more from The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden and Nick Kimberley (who to their credit start with some positive things unlike the latter two, but their attacks are the most vicious and unhinged):
By most accounts, the man who did all this was a monster. Analyzing Wagner from a safe distance in 1872, Theodor Puschmann, a Munich psychiatrist, concluded that the composer suffered from “chronic megalomania, paranoia... and moral derangement.” He was a vicious racist and an infamous womanizer, fathering countless illegitimate children. He tyrannized his first wife then stole another man's wife, finding in her an echo of his limitless self-adoration (he habitually referred to himself in the third person). He was an animal-loving vegetarian (like Hitler), but behaved abominably to anyone who treated him with less than unquestioning devotion, and he seemed oblivious to the welfare of his family, cultivating an obsession for silks and other luxuries that kept them in perpetual debt.
What is a reader, new to opera, who is glancing through these books to think? Well, obviously, I think I will pass on this guy. And thus, the audience for Wagner is greatly suppressed from what his music deserves, truly. This sort of ad hominem attack of Wagner is ubiquitous. I've checked out dozens of introductory music books, looking for ones that didn't do this, and they are very rare.

Try it yourself in a bookstore sometime. I could give further, multiple examples, but it seems silly as the usual attacks are supplied in the three examples set forth above. Though tempted to rebut the absolute falsehoods here, I need to be patient and make the case more systematically. Which I will do, as the Wicked Witch of the West said, “all in good time.”

Of course, none of the books supply any footnotes to prove—or at least support in any way— their multi-front attacks. They just assert it. You don't have to prove the case because, the assumption is, this stuff must have come from somewhere and therefore must be true. Except that much of it is clearly untrue or twisted beyond recognition (the Rough Guide stuff is particularly nuts if you know the true story). Some, yes, is partially true and some, while true, deserves to be put in context and is much more complicated, compelling and interesting than these sentences imply. It is impossible to counter this character assassination quickly. They dump this crap all over him, and it will take quite a bit of work to clean it up.

What is missing with these mindless, lazy catalogs of faults is the real human being—only a botched caricature remains. Lost to history is any real sense of his personality and his humanity, or that he even had good traits at all (beyond musical genius, which everyone acknowledges). Let me do a full reverse and just give you an introductory paragraph with only mentioning things I consider positive (and all this is true, unlike some of the items in the quotes above):

Wagner was a well-read intellectual, profoundly interested in the world of ideas and the arts. Beyond being a composer, he was an activist, an author of multiple essays and books, an influential conductor and theatrical director. He was a passionate and charismatic man, with extraordinary vitality. Wagner was fun-loving and possessed a keen sense of humor, particularly reveling in word play and black humor. His tremendous love of nature led to an on-going concern for the degradation of the environment brought about through the excesses of capitalism, which was one of the most important themes of his monumental work, Der Ring des Nibelungen. He loved animals and crusaded against their mistreatment throughout his life. His greatest gift to humanity, no doubt, is that he was a focused and organized visionary; a man, beyond all else, true to himself and his ideals, and willing to risk all—fame and fortune, health and potential wealth—for his beliefs and his art.

(I drew this summary portrait from many sources but see thispages 13-15, 23-24, 56-64, 76, 186-190, 263-237; this, pages 79, 85, 86, 138-143; and this.)

I do want to make this general point now: if you read from primary sources (his and others’ letters to or about him, his writings, contemporaries writing about him), Wagner comes off so much better, so much more likable and real, and so much more well-rounded than in virtually all short accounts, even the relatively fair ones (of which the Wikipedia entry is the only example I have found). This monster they have constructed is just not the authentic person. If you want to know the real guy, there is a great book that does that called Wagner Remembered (also cited above). It is excerpts from letters or memoires from a number people who knew or met him, the gamut of voices runs from Queen Victoria to one of Wagner servants. You get a real idea of his strengths and his weaknesses like no where else.

Of course, many people do not care at all about any composer’s character when they listen to his or her music. It’s irrelevant to them. In most cases, I share that feeling. But with Wagner, I do think it is relevant. First, many people do not divorce his character from his music. If I say I like Wagner, they often respond with something inane like this, “How can you like him? Wasn’t he a Nazi?” But if I say, “I love Richard Rogers' music” no one says, “but wasn’t he a rather cold man who was a depressed alcoholic and often unfaithful to his wife?”  (All of that was true but I really don't care, of course.) The rules are different for Wagner, so the character question must be addressed.

A significant reason that the rules are different for Wagner is that he was different from other composers, and so there is some logic that he be treated differently. For Wagner, his music was political. He absolutely believed that art should be—his art was intended to be— a means for social change, setting down his views in a series of essays such as Art and Revolution, Opera and Drama, and The Artwork of the Future. His art sprang from his deeply held convictions, and it is virtually impossible to divide his character from his work. So, he himself invited the character discussion.

Consider this the introduction to the section of this blog about his character. I will be covering the good, the bad and the ugly of Wagner’s temperament and political views in a number of subsequent posts. Plus, I will be addressing how Wagner’s reputation got into the fix it is. I think the next post will be on the first thing you would notice if you were at a cocktail party with him: his remarkable megalomania.


  1. I can't wait for the next installment, Robin. I'm loving this blog.

  2. Ah, Lynn, that's so sweet! I figure the blog has very little interest for most of my friends so I am glad that you are finding something to like!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Isn't it interesting that so many people equate vegetarianism, much less RW, with Hitler? It's as if anyone who is a vegetarian is also a Nazi. St. Francis wasn't a vegetarian, but he is identified with loving animals and speaking out on their behalf.

    You are farther down this road with RW than I am. I read Gutman's tedious and depressing bio of Wagner and then fortunately read Magee's Tristan Chord next to get the bad taste of Gutman out of my head. I've been dipping into this and that but after being confronted with so many articles of late shoveling BS onto RW I had decided to get everything from the horses' mouths that I could before continuing. I'm wading through Cosima's Diaries now, after reading RW's autobiography. It is fascinating and almost like spending time with them. I have acquired a number of the books mentioned that they were reading as well.

    Thank you for the suggestion of "Wagner Remembered". I ordered a copy. I can't believe as much as I have searched through "Richard Wagner" at Amazon that it hadn't come to my attention before as it is just the sort of thing I've been looking for.

    I have found it just intolerable that so many articles praise RW's music on and on, and then they say that he was a nasty piece of work or a reprehensible human being. It is as though they mug him and steal his music! If he wrote the music then there is a part of him that reflects that. One guy asked me what I thought about RW's views on women, and I said I imagined that they were not so different from most men's views on women in the 19th century! Keep the context of the times in mind please! I also think it is just as unfair for the Jews to blame him for Hitler as it was for RW to blame them for his troubles.

    Anyway, It'll be fun to read through your blog, and refreshing too!

  5. Donna,

    I got various similar versions of your comment, so I just picked this one to publish.

  6. Donna,

    And thanks for your comment, by the way. I am sort of free-wheeling it this year, then I plan to go back and re-edit and get rid of some of the more me-focused stuff and repost in another forum. Anything that I say that you think is dubious, I would love to have that critique. I'm not wedded to any particular position and so will adapt if anyone ever points out something that seems wrong.

  7. I don't have any complaints about anyone who is trying to dig through the layers and layers of stuff that have been heaped upon him and understand RW to the extent that is possible. The trouble is that everything that is written is filtered through those who wrote it, and often cherry-picked, and one almost has to research the authors and know a great deal of the background of the times in order to know what to take at face value. I take Cosima's Diaries to be closer to the reality of their lives but if she recorded everything for all those years utterly objectively, then she would likely be the first one to ever do so.

    It's strange because all I wanted to do was to hear more of Wagner's music, and I was totally blind-sided by all of the controversy about the man, of whom I knew nothing. Gutman said RW was a little over 5' tall. I listened to a talk by John Deathridge, who wrote Wagner, Beyond Good and Evil, and he said RW was 5' 7" tall. Another source said he was 5' 3", and the last one I saw said he was 5' 4" tall. So they can't even agree on how tall the man was, much less anything more elusive. Needless to say at this point I have found the whole thing fascinating.

    My main interest has been to try to see where RW was coming from in his search for the German soul, as my roots are Teutonic. So I have been side-tracked by Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, of which only about 1/4 is translated into English. Nearly half of it is in Latin and the rest is in something like linguistic codes and references. When the translator tells you at the beginning that Grimm wrote it for what would have been a small audience of well-educated people at that time he wasn't just a whoofin'! So then I went down the road of philology and linguistics and have ended up trying to learn German, Latin and classical Greek, as I kept running into it so much. I finally had to relegate that branch of my research into a whole other tree in order to get back to Wagner, but I have acquired, and am still acquiring, a number of the books mentioned in Cosima's Diaries (from which I take notes) that they read, plus books on history of the Germanic tribes and more recent European history, because I never did understand the history over there, the way the kingdoms and states kept morphing from one arrangement to another.

    Another side-trip - Friedelind Wagener, RW's granddaughter (Siegfried's daughter). She wrote a book, Heritage of Fire, after splitting from the family, speaking out against Hitler and fleeing Germany. I loved her book, which she wrote shortly after coming to America. She was the one who inherited Grampa's rebelliousness. Her mother, Winifred could get Wieland, Wolfgang and Verena to go with the program, but Friedelind would plant her feet and say, "WHY?" She got punished a lot and sent off to a strict boarding school, but she managed to turn that around. She was a pistol. Now there is an English translation of her recent biography coming out in October which I am looking forward to reading. I saw her biographer, Eva Rieger, on the Tony Palmer DVD about the Wagner Family. She is a German feminist, who also wrote Richard Wagner's Women. I haven't seen that one, but it would probably be interesting as well.

    I think I have discovered that I really love research for one thing! Then there is always Wagner's music there for a reward. After picking up on bits and pieces of the puzzle here and there I'm beginning to understand why I love it so. I don't know if you want to post all of this, but I'll leave that up to you.

  8. Of course I will post it all! I was waiting to write about Friedelind until later in the year. She's my hero and certainly my favorite Wagner (if you ignore Richard, who I quite like in spite of it all.) My next post was going to take up the issue of Wagner's hopes for Germany. Please feel to add or correct something; you clearly have read far more on that then I have or will.

  9. I have a cockatoo, Tinker. I've had him since he was 3 months old, and he is now 24. He is very bright and volatile. He puffs up a lot and makes faces at me and likes for me to come after him with things that he can be "afraid" of, like tongs, plays volleyball with me with balloons until he can grab them and pop them, which is rather unusual for parrots, but he knows that popping balloons cracks me up, so he does it anyway. Anything for attention. I think that being around RW may have been similar, but then I like ornery critters - they are more interesting, though they can wear you out after a while.

    I thought you would like Friedelind. I was happy to see some footage of her on the DVD. That was the main reason I got it. It certainly wasn't for Gottfried, who seems to have made a cottage industry out of going after the rest of them. Not that it isn't a target-rich environment. Nike appears to be about the only one who looks something like Cosima.

    Still working on RW and what he wanted for Germany. There was a very good description of perspective by Hyemeyohsts Storm that has always stuck in my mind. He said if you were to sit a number of people around in a circle, all looking at the middle, and put some objects in the center, everyone sitting around the outside will be looking at the same thing but seeing something a little different. This seems sometimes to be the way RW is with things, because he moves to different positions on the circle as he learns more or circumstances change. The 19th century may have been a place where mythology gave way to progress, but RW seemed to have one foot in either camp.