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. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer – part 1 here, part 2 here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the issue of anti-Semitism is here; the 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.
In this post, I am going to tackle several of the more amorphous, but ubiquitous, charges. Was he amoral or immoral? Was he a liar and a hypocrite?
Let me dismiss at the outset the ridiculous charge that he was amoral. I mean, the man was all about morality. His life, his works, everything he fought for, everything he wrote about—both polemics and music—established his beliefs and moral codes. Many people disagreed with his morality, but to say he was amoral is just not true and has no basis in fact.
In the 19th century, the charge of immorality could accurately be leveled against Wagner by the pure and righteous of the Christian faith. But Wagner was not a believer in 19th century European Christian morality. He looked back, instead, to ancient Greek society as being much closer to the ideal, and blamed Christianity for much of what he saw as wrong with society. Bryan Magee in The Tristan Chord sums up Wagner’s views:
In fact he regarded Christian attitudes as misconceived and deleterious. They taught people to cease believing in human existence as an end in itself and to regard it as serving the purposes of a god in the sky. The human body, which the Greeks had revered as an object of beauty, became an object of shame. The life-creating, person-creating sexual, the highest expression of love between two human beings, was looked on as something sinful and dirty, and became supercharged with guilt. Christianity represented this world as a vale of tears, and this life as a fleeting prelude to a life that was not of this world but infinitely more important that it, life everlasting. On each of these particulars the young Wagner detested Christian belief — and, specially, regarded it as inimical to art.1
Wagner was against the modern world in most ways, and his art reflected that. He constantly swam against the tide of society, and the following libretto that he puts in Siegmund’s mouth pretty much captures his feeling about his own life's struggles:
I was drawn to women and men,
but though I met many,
wherever I found them,
whether I sought friends,
or courted women,
I was always unpopular.
Bad luck dogged me.
Whatever I thought right
seemed bad to others;
whatever seemed wrong to me,
others approved of.
I ran into feuds
wherever I found myself,
I met disfavour wherever I went;
if I hankered for happiness,
I only stirred up misery
Not surprisingly, in his day the criticism of him was concentrated on sexual morality. Many considered Wagner and his music degenerate, sinful, deviant and so, of course, immoral. If I lived in his day, I would have been, I am proud to say, in the same boat with Wagner.
In fact, Wagner, always a man of the future, had moral beliefs that are very close to those of modern Europe and the “blue”-leaning Americans. So, for the charge to be leveled based on sexuality morality in this day and age is odd indeed, unless it comes from a conservative religious source.
I am guessing that the immoral charge also came from his debts: that he lived above his means on borrowed money, and continued to borrow even when deeply in debt. Well, sure, call that immoral if you like, but then you better throw most Americans into that category. Again, he was just ahead of his time here. Due to his talent, Wagner was actually able to secure debt that most people could not have obtained in that century. But Americans have shown that, given the chance, a huge percentage act just like Wagner did, which is to live well above their means. And, unlike the 33,692,429 people who declared bankruptcy in the US between 1980-2012, Wagner actually ended up paying off the majority of his debts—at least to poeple other than to a subsection of his friends—through the support of his benefactors.
The third factor in his alleged immorality is his romantic affairs while still married. I personally don't agree, given the circumstances, that he was immoral in his conduct with women, but please read the two posts—links given above—for the full story and my reasoning.
I haven’t taken up the issue of his prejudices—his beliefs that were anti-Semitic, anti-French, anti-Catholic, and, yes, anti-German—and how that relates to his moral viewpoint. Nor am I taking up at this point the question of whether those attitudes in the context of the 19th century, in and of themselves, were considered immoral. I will be writing about this, of course, but that will be some blog posts down the line. The charge of immorality is always made separately from those charges, however, so I assume it is not intended as a redundancy, but a distinct and different accusation.
In sum, excluding the prejudice issue, I find the immoral charge to be without basis in this modern age, at least for the non-pious.
“Wagner, thank the fates, is no hypocrite. He says out what he means, and he usually means something nasty.” James Huneker, American music writer and critic
I don’t think the charge of hypocrisy has much basis in fact. The above quote, while hyperbolic, is closer to the truth. Wagner followed his own morals to a striking degree, with the only hypocrisy demonstrated being that he acted more conventionally than he professed—such as by getting married— than was his stated ideal. Of course, his opinions changed over time, and he often felt or processed things that had contradictory elements. But I truly can’t even think of one thing that could lead to this charge. If someone else does, let me know, and I will address it.
When Wagner is accused of being a liar, it is usually the autobiography that is trotted out as the first exhibit.
His benefactor, King Ludwig, asked him to write his autobiography. He did that via dictating it to Cosima over a 15-year period. People point out that the biography suppresses information about his relationship with and feelings for various woman before Cosima. Duh! Call that lying if you want—and ignoring the the natural fact that it is hard to reconstruct long-ago emotions— but I am sure he was showing Cosima as much sensitivity as he could and, really, should have done. Others would ferret out the truth in biographies; it really wasn’t necessary for Wagner to do that.
He also does not accurately depict in his autobiography the extent of his involvement with the revolutionary movement of 1949. Some of this is probably not intentional lying, but the natural weakness of memory reconstruction, colored by subsequent evolution of thought. That said, since the autobiography was being written for his benefactor who was, no doubt, not a big fan of revolutionaries, I suspect that came in play, too. Beyond those two large areas, critics point to various biographical bits, all laughingly minor, to show that he was wrong about this or that incident. For example, much is made of this memory:
...of another miracle—which also came to us from Dresden—suddenly gave a new direction to my artistic feelings and exercised a decisive influence over my whole life. This consisted of a special performance given by Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient, who at that time was at the zenith of her artistic career, young, beautiful, and ardent, and whose like I have never again seen on the stage. She made her appearance in Fidelio.2
Turns out the truth was that he saw her in a different opera. Liar, Wagner! Caught!
I mean, seriously, this is the sort of stuff that is used to show he “lied” in his autobiography, and there isn’t even much of this sort of stuff. The fact is that the memoir was a reconstruction of his memory coming many decades after the event. In many cases he had notes to help him reconstruct his memory, but not for an early memory such as the one above. (He was 16 at the time.) Memory science has clearly proven that there is no such thing as accurate recall, but instead all memory is a reconstruction and a confabulation. (If you aren’t up on current memory science, here is a good summary.) The point is, minor memory discrepancies are to be expected and should not be classified as lies unless there is evidence of intentional deception, which is not the case of most of these sort of small Wagner's biographical inaccuracies.
The other big lie he is known for is hiding the truth about his relationship with Cosima for a number of years. He certainly did this, for all the usual reasons one hides an affair. So, I will grant you that he could tell a big lie when he felt it necessary.
Look, it just seems to me to tag someone a “liar,” it should be a person who lies consistently and with destructive intent, like a con man. Certainly, Wagner lied, but in seemingly very human and normal ways. I am not saying that in a biography on him this isn’t a fair area of exploration and censure. But what I am saying is that it doesn’t belong in an opening paragraph of a thumbnail biography, as is so often the case.
1Magee, Tristan Chord, page 93
2Wagner, Richard, My Life, page 24