Friday, April 26, 2013

Wagner's Reputation Mess - Part 1

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 his morality, hypocrisy and lying here; the issue of anti-Semitism is hereThe second part of his reputation mess is here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

The problems of Wagner’s reputation today, as in his time, can be attributed in large part to Wagner himself. While I have argued that he is a victim of character assassination, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t get the ball rolling. This effort was aided and abetted during—and most particularly after—his life by sycophant followers, most prominently his wife Cosima, who lived for 45 years after he died. If Wagner put the ball in motion, they sent it down a mountain, picking up momentum as the years tumbled by. That rolling ball, most unfortunately for Wagner, ran smack-dab into Adolph Hitler.

“I have no luck!” Wagner complained to Mathilde Wesendonck in a letter of August, 1863.1 This letter came less than a year before Wagner’s luck took a decisive turn for the better, but it is true to that point, when he was 50 years old, his path was full of pitfalls, setbacks, pain and heartache. Almost always  these struggles were partially or completely self-inflicted. Nonetheless, he managed to triumph, becoming a phenomenon in his time and a juggernaut in the world of music for decades following his death. So, when it finally seemed that Wagner’s struggles were over, bad luck did find him: a boy named Adolph Hitler became a big fan, and then that fan adopted Wagner as an inspiration for seinen kampf (his struggle).2

I will save for the next post what happened after Wagner’s death, including the sordid story of both the entwining of the Wagner family (40 years after his death, keep in mind) with “Uncle Wolf” as they called Hitler, and the effect that his love of Wagner's music has had on the composer’s reputation. To say it has been a huge blow is to put it mildly.

So how did Wagner get the ball rolling—this is, how did he sew the seeds of the destruction of his reputation?

Well, first, as much as I admire him for this in many ways, it certainly didn’t help that he was a left-wing revolutionary and became an outlaw because of that activity. Nor did his absolute certainty in the rightness of his views, pontificated in a manner most found bellicose, win him many friends. While he had a very fun, affectionate and kind side, everyone knew he also had a side that was best avoided. Many people, of course, just chose to avoid the whole man. In a conservative time, many were offended by something that I, personally, love about his music: it’s full-on embrace of sensuality and sexuality. Therefore, many believed he was immoral to write such music (and his subsequent “scandal” with Cosima confirmed it to these folks).3

But the world—and the world of music—is full of men with difficult personalities, who were promiscuous, and who had all sorts of pernicious ideas; yet they have much better press. All of Wagner's peccadilloes would have not added up to very much without one key ingredient: his writing.

As he considered himself and his ideas of great importance, he wrote and wrote to expound his theories—in letters, in essays, in books, in diaries. (And I must concur with his self-appraisal: he was of great importance to a wide variety of artistic fields, and even to philosophy—his tremendous influence on Nietzsche being the most evident.) Historian John Deathridge writes that “Wagner’s collected writings on a huge variety of subjects fill sixteen substantial volumes.... He penned thousands of letters (about ten thousand have so far been traced), many of them running to several densely written pages.”4 

When he wasn’t writing, he had Cosima do it—both as scribe for his autobiography and as a diarist during their time together.  Her diaries, collected in two volumes, cover more than 2,000 pages (in a small font on large pages, may I add).  Therefore, unlike most artists—or most historical figures—of that era or any earlier era, there is a wealth of information coming directly from Wagner (or his wife).

It is through this plethora of materials that he sealed his fate. If you read his body of work, there isn’t much, relatively speaking, about his beliefs about the Jews. But what he did write was a bomb waiting to go off.

Hilter lit the fuse.

As I said above, I will take up that story next week.

End Note

1 Millington and Spencer, Selected Letters of Wagner, page 568
2 See Kershaw, Hitler, pages 21-23 for his early love of Wagner's music; the adoption by Hitler of Wagner for the Nazi's will be taken up in the next post.
3 There are some other notable reasons for people believing he was immoral, but I am saving those additional reasons for my Wagner is Queer post.
4 Deathridge, et al., The Wagner Handbook, xi

Friday, April 19, 2013

Wagner's Anti-Semitism, Part 1

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 his morality, hypocrisy and lying 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.

There is no doubt in this modern age, particularly post-holocaust, that the most troubling aspect of Wagner’s character revolves around his anti-Semitism. There are many ways in which to view it, and much has been written on it.1 I have thought, and read, about this issue more than any other, and I will be writing a number of posts to try to articulate my position and view it from a variety of lenses. I suspect these sections will get reworked and reordered as I write and reflect back on the posts as they emerge.

Since I am in the midst of my “character study” of Wagner, to write about the Jewish issue now would interrupt that effort. But I obviously need to acknowledge for these character posts that Wagner was, in fact, anti-Semitic. Even in this area, though, people exaggerate the claims about his anti-Semitism and assert things about his views that are simply untrue. I will write about all that later, but for now I want to make some broad points, many of which I will return to in more detail and with more—I hope—finesse.

To start off, let me just give a very brief background of Wagner’s milieu. In mid-19th century Germany, most people—no matter if they were friend or foe of Jews civil rights and integration into society—had views that in our present age would be considered stereotypical and anti-Semitic, to wit: that Jews were vulgar and shady characters who were adept at making money through unsavory means, plus they were foreign and, as their culture was perceived at the time, undesirable in the society.  That said, a large number—perhaps a majority—felt these perceived traits of their culture developed due to the legal barriers erected against the Jews and would go away or greatly diminish with the advancement of Jewish civil rights and assimilation into the larger culture. Thus, it was a tolerant period, as a historian of the period, Jacob Katz, reports, “rooted in the more or less emphatic hope that the Jewish minority, in its economic, social, cultural, and perhaps even religious particularity, would in the course of time disappear.”2

Wagner held the ubiquitous stereotypes about the Jews, which was unremarkable given the zeitgeist. What was different—and considered rather shocking and impolite at the time—was that he disseminated these views via his writings, most particularly Das Judenthum in der Musik. 3 It was published anonymously in 1850 and reprinted under his name in 1869.  In this essay, in a nutshell, he makes these arguments about the Jews: first, he claimed that since Jews were a foreign element within Germany that they, therefore, could not write authentic and deeply passionate German music; secondly, that Jews made a business out of art, degrading it; thirdly, that Jews gave Germans—he assumed all would agree—the creeps because they were, in fact, creepy. It was the last point that people most strenuously objected to then and now. He concluded his essay with the pro-assimilation position, which was in-line with the times, but his airing of his animus to Jews was decidedly not.

Pre-holocaust, his writings about Jews views were treated as, essentially, not in good taste and part of his general character of being unable to hold his tongue about anything. At that point, it was still relatively socially acceptable to be anti-Semitic, so the urge to write about it critically didn’t exist as it does now. However, post-holocaust, there has been a profusion of literature on the subject, particularly in the last several decades. According to Wagner scholar Thomas Grey, the focus of scholarly inquiry now “has to do with the consequences of these facts, either for our understanding of the operas or for any possible consensus regarding Wagner’s implication in the murderous anti-Semitic polices of the Nazi regime that came into power fifty years after this death.”4

Beyond the serious, but often biased, academic inquiries into the role of Wagner in inspiring or otherwise abetting the Nazi movement that emerged about 50 years after his death, Wagner has been demonized and mythologized within Israel—and to a lesser extent, the rest of the West—and used as lightening rod for the anger against Nazi Germany.  In her book, The Ring of Myths: Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis, the Israeli historian Na’ama Sheffi explores the process of the rerouting of the righteous Jewish anger towards Germany through the scapegoating of Wagner. She explores how this process helped smooth the path for Israel to create political and economic ties with West Germany in the 60s. Consequently, as Terry Kinney summarized in this review of Sheffi's book:  

By the 1980s and 1990s the Wagner controversy had reached such a level that Wagner had been completely disassociated from his historical context. Indeed, proponents of Wagner performances frequently had to remind their readers that Wagner was not actually alive during the Nazi era, such was the level of knowledge concerning the real Richard Wagner.

As quoted in the Amazon summary, Sheffi concludes that the choice of Wagner as the target for all their abhorrence of Nazism and the Holocaust both sins against the man and obscures the significance of the Holocaust.5

To point towards Wagner as an architect of the holocaust seriously misdirects the locus of historical culpability. My belief is that, historically and morally, the responsibility should be directed to Christianity and Christians. They created the ocean of anti-Semitism, with Wagner simply a small tributary contributing to the major, and overwhelming, volume.

Of course, Christians did not begin anti-Jewish thought and action.  As modern anti-Semitism was built on Christian anti-Semitism,  Christian animosity was built on existing pagan animosity, so the blame for the Holocaust can reach even farther back in history. In any case, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment is embedded into the New Testament, which seems clearly to me to be an anti-Semitic text. Many passages within it put forward the Jewish stereotypes that still exist today, particularly about Jews and their greed for money.  As well, the imfamous line from Matthew 27:24–25 in which the crowd says at Jesus' cruxification “his blood be upon us, and on our children,” was widely interpreted as a curse on the Jews.6 

While Christians have this or that excuse—all lame to my reading—for what the New Testament seems to say, they can have no excuse for what they did, or encouraged, or ignored, for 2000 years, stemming directly from their sacred text. The Jews were granted tolerance—that is, they weren’t killed systematically—because, as Katz summarized, “of the hope that they would convert and step forward as witnesses of the Christian truth, by the latest at the End of Days.” 7 David Vital, in his book A People Apart, the Jews in Europe 1789-1939, states the case clearly: “The lesson of Exile in Europe was that as much by the sword as the word the masters of Christendom had sought to bring about if not the death of Jewry, at any rate its decimation; and, failing that, they had sought to ensure that Jews lived out their lives in the greatest possible moral and material squalor and degradation.”8 

The Catholic Church, of course, was the central persecutor of the Jews for most of the time. The reformation brought no improvement. In fact, Martin Luther was a truly fanatical and despicable anti-Semite. To take a piece from Wikipedia: “Luther advocated setting synagogues on fire, destroying Jewish prayerbook, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews property and money, and smashing up their homes, so that these poisonous envenomed worms would be forced into labour or expelled for all time. In Robert Michael's view, Luther's words, We are at fault in not slaying them amounted to a sanction for murder.9

I agree wholeheartedly with Hyam Maccoby who considered “Hitler the ‘the boil’ in which the poisons of ‘Christian society’ came to a head.” 10 

Now, to my mind, Christians have not in any significant or real way taken responsibility for their dominant role in the persecution of Jews throughout the last two millennium, which clearly was the central source of animus that Hilter manipulated to attempt his ultimate destruction of the Jews.  Typical is this Catholic's attempt to shift the central blame to neo-pagan sources.

Look, I do believe that Wagner had some, though limited, culpability for setting the stage that led to the rise of the Nazi’s. When I have finished these posts the extent of his culpability should be clear.  But, to give him any fundamental blame is just asinine, particularly in the context of the overwhelming anti-Semitism—among many other calamities—of Western Civilization.

More on some of those calamities—like slavery, genocide or the subjugation of Native peoples, the Inquistion—down the line (but I need to finish the character section!) But let me leave with this, which pretty much accords with my thoughts:
Question to Gandhi on a trip to London: “What do you think of Western Civilization?
His answer: “I think it would be a good idea.”

End Notes

1 For this section, I am drawing on these sources regarding Wagner’s anti-semitism. I consider them fair and intellectually honest—though not necessarily correct in their conclusions or emphasis, which is notoriously difficult with someone like Wagner, who said and did so many contradictory things. Searching for the true Wagner is truly challenging, but these authors were diligent in their quest for balance. Katz, The Darker Side of Genius; Magee, The Tristan ChordAppendix 343-380 and Aspects of Wagner, pages 19-28; Grey,  The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, pages 203-218; Brener, Richard Wagner and the Jews; from Deathridge, Muller, Wapnewski, the Wagner Handbook, the article "The Question of Anti-Semitism" by Dieter Borchmeyer, Millington, the Wagner Compendium, pages 161-164. If you read German, I have read very good things about Dieter David Scholz's Richard Wagners Antiseitismus. 
2 Katz, 5
3 Full text of the article is here. Warning though: the translator Ellis is considered to be horrible and makes the job of understanding what Wagner means much more difficult than it should be.  Here is a post from the blog Think Classical  that makes that point very well. This blogger’s interpretation of Wagner's article—he translated it himself and it is much clearer and less offensive—is here.  This translation problem is compounded by the fact that Wagner is normally an obtuse writer. Bryan Magee says of his lack of skill—on page 4 of Aspects of Wagner—“One forms the conviction that the prose was improvised, poured out without forethought or discipline—that when Wagner embarked on each individual sentence he had no idea how it was going to end. Many passages are intolerably boring. Some do not mean anything at all. It always calls for sustained effort from the reader to pick out meaning in the cloud of words. Often one has to go on reading for several pages before beginning to descry what, like a solid figure emerging from a mist, it is he is saying.” He is so unclear that people have come to diametrically opposed opinions about what his words actually mean. That said, the ending of Wagner's article, quoted out of context, has been intentionally misinterpreted in horrific ways that are clearly wrong if you actually read the article.
4 Grey, The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, page 203
5 I don’t have the book here in Hawaii, so this quote from the book description will have to do.   
6 Here and here are some sources if you want to read more.
7 Katz, page 6.  Katz also wrote From Prejudice to Destruction 1700-1933  if you want to read a full survey of the rise of the so-called "modern" anti-semitism.
8 Vital, 108
9 From Wikipedia.  Defenders of Martin Luther point to his tolerance for Jews in his younger years, but his tolerance ended when Jews—those stubborn cusses—didn't convert to his reform version of Christianity.  This is hardly a defense in my view.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Wagner: Amoral or Immoral? Hypocrite and liar?

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 aboutboth polemics and musicestablished 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 lines 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.

End notes

1Magee, Tristan Chord, page 93
2Wagner, Richard, My Life, page 24

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 1848, 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

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Power of Music

I just read that Roger Ebert died, so I thought I would turn the blog over for just a bit to him.

He writes beautifully here about music in general, and also in films.

It fits into this blog.

Bye, Roger.  As many others are saying, the balcony is closed.  That's so sad.