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

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