Friday, April 5, 2013

Wagner and Money

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; the charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar 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.




Wagner and money: what a mess! The intersection of his utter self-absorption with his intemperate nature has left his reputation in this area in tatters. As with most areas, this criticism of Wagner is rarely tempered by the historical situation or any attenuating circumstances.  I will try to strike a balance here, but his behavior in this realm is not attractive.

A principal biographer, Barry Millington, sympathetic to Wagner’s monetary woes, has tried to inject perspective in an article in The Wagner Compendium. His introduction:

More nonsense has been uttered on this topic than on almost any other connected to Wagner. The conventional image, wearisomely peddled, is that of an unscrupulous, exploitative scrounger, constantly touching friends, patrons, and publishers for loans with which to subsidize a life of luxury. Such a view betrays an extraordinary failure of imagination, as well as a lock of understanding of the historical situation.1

In a nutshell, Millington makes the point that Wagner was born into an era that, due to existing practices and law, assured that all German artists, no matter how famous, would struggle financially. The age of patronage was coming to an end; the age of royalties was just dawning (Germany first passed a copyright law ensuring that right towards the end of Wagner’s career in 1870.) Millington writes that “a single, flat fee was normally payable, any profits accruing to the publisher and the theater.... Wagner could scarcely expect a fair return for his labours.”

Wagner’s financial problems were greatly compounded by refusing to compromise his artistic vision in a quest for wealth, or at least a steady living. The fact that he wasn’t a “pure musician,” but had political – nay, theological – aspirations, meant that the means to make money was more difficult. He wasn’t trying to get rich; he was trying to overturn the relationship of art to society. For Wagner to be able to afford to compose the works he did, he simply had to supplement the meager pay he could make through loans and by gifts.

Millington makes this point about the modern age of money-raising:

In our own time, artist and administrators are driven to extend the begging-bowl to patrons, sponsors and funding bodies of all kinds – yet no moral censure seems to attach itself to such behaviour.2

While Millington’s contention is incontrovertible as far as it goes, the reason that Wagner is censured in this area is not that he asked people for money, but for the manner in which he approached some of those potential fund givers, his relationship with his benefactors, and the uses of those funds.

According to people who knew him well, he constantly sized up friends for what they could do for him; if no use could be found for one, he or she rarely remained a friend. In 1953, his brother, Albert, wrote in a letter to him complaining of this:

I am used to seeing you respect people only if and as long as they can be useful to you; when the usefulness is over, the person also no longer exists for you. Gratitude for the past is unknown for you: all that is merely an infernal obligation. It has always been so.... Greatly as I value and love your talent, it is just the opposite as regards your character.3 

A decade later, the German composer Peter Cornelius, who was a friend and close associate for many years, wrote along the same lines in a diary post about Wagner:

I say in a word that his morality is weak and without a true basis. His whole lifecourse, along with his egotistic bent, has ensnared him in ethical labyrinths. He makes use of people for himself alone, without any real feeling for them, without even paying them in return the tribute of pure piety. Within himself he has been too much intent on making his mental greatness cover all his moral weaknesses; I fear that posterity will be more critical.4  

Karl Ritter, a long-time friend of Wagner, consoled the German composer Robert von Hornstein, who felt used by Wagner, by telling him: “Wagner likes you a lot and has a high opinion of your talent, but it is so much a part of his nature to have these ulterior motives.”5

In other words, many around him, those who knew him best, perceived him to be a user. These folks didn’t complain about him asking for money per se, just that he was a friend only on very limited – and totally his – terms.

So the question becomes: why did these people remain his friend if his character was so clear to them? I think the answer is that the good—his talent, his amazing larger-than-life personality, his vision—trumped the bad. Plus, let’s face it: everyone knew that he was destined for greatness, and they were riding those tails. One friend, a now-largely forgotten composer named Felix Draeske, put it into a letter to another in Wagner’s circle, Wendelin Weißheimer:

At present it is not exactly agreeable to have relations with him. Later, however, in another thirty or forty years, we shall be envied by all the world for a phenomenon like him is so gigantic that after his death it will become greater and greater, particularly as then the great image of the man will not be disfigured by any unpleasant traits.6 

(Well, clearly Draeseke wasn’t clairvoyant, as now Wagner is seen solely through the lens of negative traits.)

I think it is clear that the friendship offered by others was often not “pure” itself. His friends wanted to be around the phenomenon and be part of the glory, come hell or high water. Peter Cornelius, who saw his negative characteristic so clearly as quoted above in his diary, did break with the composer at one point. But, ultimately, he came back because of one of Wagner’s better traits:

I am quite determined to stick with him steadfastly.... When I see how others, like Bülow, Liszt, Berlioz, Tausig, Damrosh treat me, ignore me, forget me, and how he, the moment I show him even a hint of my heart, is always ready to give me his full friendship, then I tell myself that it is Fate that has brought us together.7

I have come to the conclusion that Wagner often did treat friends very poorly; everything was in service to his vision, his program. However, if you accepted that basic tenant of friendship with him, he was actually quite a kind-hearted guy. Millington writes of this good side:

His letters overflow with expressions of effusive thanks: sometimes for money received, but even more often for love and understanding shown. He expected much of his friends, but he gave generously in return, not only gifts, but also in terms of aid, affection and moral support... His impassioned letters to such stalwart friends as Liszt, Anton Pusinelli and Eliza Willie give the lie to the notion that he was indifferent to the feelings of others.8

Again, I don’t disagree with anything Millington writes—I’ve read his letters and enough biographical information to know it is true—but it is also true that if one of those friends cooled on his artistic vision, the relationship would have cooled equally.

His great biographer, Newman, sums it up rightly, I think: “The moralist may regret the insensitiveness of Wagner the man in these matters: the historian is bound to recognise that without that insensitiveness Wagner the artist would have gone under.”9

Turning to his use of funds that he procured through his insistent fund-raising: his spending was completely unhinged. If he had money, he spent it—lavishly, stupidly, bizarrely—both on himself and others. He got into debt in his early 20s and never really got out of debt, even when “saved” by King Ludwig when he was 50.10  As creditors closed in (debtor’s prison was alive and well, and a real threat), he found another creditor to take over. It’s an old story, but with a twist: He would borrow from Peter to pay Paul, and then throw a huge party for Paul, with only the finest, and most expensive, champagne and gifts for all! Throughout his life he suffered through, as one friend puts it, “fits of generosity,” though he could ill-afford it.11 

When he was young, he didn’t try to rationalize this crazed behavior, any more than he rationalized his inability to control his emotions; it was just the way he was. In a letter to a friend after one spending frenzy, when he was 22, he wrote:

I knew I had not the least solid support & nothing to fall back on, & yet I behaved like a madman, living beyond my means in every conceivable respect; other people, & especially rich people, do not squander their money as I do. The result was a whirlpool of chaos and misery whose complexities I can look on only with horror. Not even I can reconstruct all the individual details – it is scandalous and inexplicable into what an abyss I have fallen.12 

He continued the behavior, but created rationalizations, as he grew older. His politics lined up nicely with his rationalizations, so it isn’t clear which came first. It’s a chicken/egg conundrum. The gist is that he always felt the quest for money was at the root of all that was bad with society, which is what drew him to the socialist movement. After the failed revolutions of 1949, he grew disenchanted with the hope for a change via the political process and turned his full attention to art for the reminder of his life.

Wagner believed strongly that art—and the artists that make it—should be at the pinnacle of society and, therefore, artists were the most deserving to obtain the bounty available in life for their labors. Those who lived off the labor of others—capitalists—were totally undeserving. He was the giver; capitalists were the takers. He considered himself to be taking from the rich in the service of deserving poor—both the masses who would enjoy the art, and himself, the person who suffered to create the art. I don’t know if Wagner knew the English tale, but he was a veritable Robin Hood of the arts!

The fact that he spent much of his life struggling and poor was a source of continual embitterment. He summed up his view in a letter he wrote to his sister Cäcilie in 1852: “There is no man alive who does not feel a greater need than I do to pour out all his riches without reserve, and yet there is none who is given less in return than I; my outgoings bear no relation to my income.”13 Thus, when he did manage to wrangle up some money, he felt it should be spent and enjoyed by himself and his friends; let the consequences be damned!

So, there you have a great formula for constant stress. Let me remind you of Mr Micawber’s—from David Copperfield – famous saying: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds], nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” And, yes, Wagner was normally miserable, and he had only himself to blame.

There can be no doubt that if Wagner had been born in the 20th century and had the level of fame he did—he was the most famous and influential musician of the century—he would have been a rich man and his money problems would have been less and maybe his reputation would have been much improved in this area.

But, then I think of Michael Jackson and his debts and think, maybe not.



End Notes

1 Millington, ed., The Wagner Compendium, page 116
2 Ibid., page 117
3 Newman, The Life of Wagner, Vol. 1, page 83 
4 as quoted in Ibid., Vol. 3, 207
5 as quoted in Spencer, ed. Wagner Remembered, pages 100-101
6 as quoted in Newman, Wagner, Man and Artist, page 179 
7 as quoted in Tanner, Wagner, page 20
8 Op. cit., Millington, page 116
9 Newman,  The Life of Wagner, Vol 1, page 172 
10 The whole story of Wagner and Ludwig will be a later post, but all I can say is it is like a Hollywood movie, with an plot that almost defies belief, except that it happened.
11 Op. cit., Spencer, page  96
12 Millington, ed., Selected Letters of Wagner, page 29 
13 Ibid., page 278



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