Friday, October 25, 2013

Wagner’s Influence: Credit is Due

Wagner’s impact on Western culture can hardly be overestimated. –Annegret Fauser1

If you are a fan of film music such as Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings; if you like the experience of watching theater in a darkened theater; if you think it makes sense that the orchestra is in a pit and the conductor faces the musicians to conduct; if you are glad that late-comers aren’t seated; if you appreciate the artistry of conductors in general; if you are a member of or enjoy modern orchestras; if you like the music of Richard Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Bruckner, Elgar, or Schoenberg; if you are glad about the rise of the first gay rights movement and feminism in the 19th century; if you appreciate music or opera that is highly sensual; if you are relieved that our sexual mores are not based on female repression any more (or, at least, as much);  if you think the central symbol of The Lords of the Ring is compelling; if you are a enthusiast of Joyce, Mann, D.H Lawrence, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf or G.B. Shaw; if you like T.S Eliot or the French symbolist poets like Baudelaire or Mallermé; if you love Cézanne, Renoir, or Gauguin; if you appreciate the “decadents” of Great Britain like Wilde and Beardsley; if you are into Nietzsche’s philosophy; if you work as a fund-raiser or promoter, or have hired a promoter or fund-raiser; if you have enjoyed a summer music festival; if you are intrigued—if not convinced—by Freud’s dream theory; and, yes, if you are a Zionist; then tip your hat to Richard Wagner, as he had a vast influence on all this, and much more.2

Wagner was without peers. Those who want to reduce him to just a composer are closing their eyes to history, to reality.  There was and is nobody else remotely like him in the modern era; he was the most important cultural figure in the 19th century, launching a movement known as Wagnerism that had a profound affect on all the arts, and a number of social movements, with reverberations that are still obvious to this day. And, yet, most people don’t know this because his influence is generally unacknowledged, or under-acknowledged, in modern times. I agree with Bryan Magee who says, “The extent to which this [influence] has been willfully ignored is almost incredible.”3

The average educated person probably knows only that he had influence on the history of music, particularly opera and movie music, and also that he is thought to have influenced the rise of Nazi Germany. The latter is well “known” because most articles put his anti-Semitism and Hitler’s admiration of him in the heart of the piece, even though the facts are often botched.  I googled “Wagner Biography” and the top link is this one.

The opening of the article:

Born in Germany on May 22, 1813, Richard Wagner went on to become one of the world’s most influential—and controversial—composers.  He is famous for both his epic operas, including the four-part, 18-hour Ring Cycle, as well as for his anti-Semitic writing, which, posthumously, made him a favorite of Adolf Hitler.  There is evidence that Wagner’s music was played at the Dachau concentration camp to “re-educate” the prisoners.

Now, the fact is there is little evidence that Hitler read any of Wagner’s prose works, but in any case, why is it in the second sentence of a biography when it had not a thing to do with Wagner’s life?  And what is that sentence about his music being played at a concentration camp doing in a biography of Wagner at all?4 That biographical article does say he was an “influential composer,” but the rest of the article doesn’t really mention it, beyond his influence on movie music.

The biography above is the sort of tripe which I recounted in this series of posts on the character assassination of Wagner, that has have drowned out virtually everything that I am writing about in this post.  We seem, collectively, to be embarrassed, perhaps shamed, to the point of massive denial that a man who was loved by Hitler and was anti-Semitic was that influential.

Yet, extraordinarily influential he was.  What I mean by this can be put in three categories.  The first is his own creative invention—that is, he was the first to do the particular thing—and society followed (see below for some examples);  the second category is all the people who explicitly fell under the sway of  Wagnerism—most of those I listed above fall into this category—and tried to emulate his example within their own artistic vision and craft, whether they were poets, painters, writers or musicians; the third category consists of those for whom it is easy to trace the influence of Wagner, though the person may have tried to minimize a connection or, even, deny it.  This last category I won’t be addressing at all, beyond this post on Tolkien written by my wife Leslie in September, which gives an illustration of this sort of influence.

The author David Large writes about this phenomenon:

We speak of ‘Wagnerism’ but not Mozartism, Beethovenism, or Brahmsism.  Wagner’s influence, especially during the peak period of Wagnerism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reached far beyond the world of music and theatre, embracing most the other arts, as well as philosophy, social theory and politics…. It is astounding how many fin-de-siècle artists and intellectuals believed that Wagner’s multifaceted legacy could be of use in enhancing their work, not to mention their lives.5  

This is obviously a massive topic, well beyond the scope of what I can accomplish in a blog. That said, in future posts I will be exploring his impact on cinema, his impact on our sexual mores, feminism and gay rights and his impact on music and conducting. As for his influence on fin-de-siècle European and American culture in all its multiplicity, I am merely going to recommend sources to read. I have added them in the section entitled “Wagnerism” to my bibliography here. But, as an example, please read the two posts (also written by Leslie) about Wagner’s influence on James Joyce here. There could be a similar blog post—or book—about each artist I mentioned above and many whom I have not mentioned, in which the specific influence of Wagner is traced. I will leave that for others to write. (Of course, some have been written, and if you want more references, just ask.)

Creative Invention

In the first category—his creative invention—all of it flowed from his views about drama, much of which he articulated at length in his essays, particularly "Opera and Drama" and "The Artwork of the Future." Wagner believed that music was the most effective means to dramatic expression, but his music was always in service to the drama and not the other way around. Essentially, he wanted the audience's attention to be riveted on the work, therefore he advocated, among other things, applause only at the end of the act, no late-comer seating, the orchestra hidden in a pit, and the hall being dark.6 It isn’t as if someone else wouldn’t have come up with these things sooner or later—they seem rather “duh” to us today—it is just that he was the one who did it first, because he was so focused on dramatic reform.  He was obviously right: good job, Richard!

The interior of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth,
the site of the first orchestra pit, among other innovations.
Another “duh” creative invention of his was to turn his back on the audience when he conducted.  Until Wagner, conductors either faced the audience or a few did a sort of side-stance.  The Russian music critic and teacher Nikolay Kashkin described the revelatory moment for him:

Wagner amazed everyone at the beginning by standing in front of the orchestra.  Before that time, conductors in Russian, as in the rest of Europe, used to stand in the first row of the orchestra facing the audience, but Wagner stood in front of the orchestra, turning his back to the auditorium, and it seemed so natural and sensible that everyone has done the same since.7

Exterior of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus,
home of much of Wagner's creative invention.
The whole enterprise of building the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was, of course, another creative invention of Wagner’s.  It was the first summer music festival and remains one of the most famous.  Now, of course, there are hundreds of festivals, some also devoted to the music of one composer (though few do so exclusively, as Bayreuth continues to do with rare exceptions).  Its impact is hard to imagine, but it was enormous.  David Large and William Weber write in the introduction to Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics:

The Wagnerian movement was unique in its time in endowing one artist with such stature and respect that a special institution was built to perform his art according to his wishes.  Artists of all kinds looked in wonder at the festival, at the independence and power it afforded Wagner, as well as at the movement that had grown up around him by the time.8 

In his quest to improve drama, Wagner also improved stage machinery and theatre design.  He didn’t “invent” any of the machinery itself or draw the plans himself, but he did hire people to bring to life his exacting vision.  So, for example, he explained the concept of the orchestra pit—and a variety of other innovations—to the architect to draw.  In terms of stagecraft, he worked with his stage technician, Karl Brandt, to invent, among other things—in a term coined by Shaw after viewing the innovation—a “steam curtain” to create the effect of fog.9

Some Thoughts About Art, Influence, Culpability and Credit

Umberto Eco argues in “The Poetics of the Open Work”:

A work of art is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterated specificity. Hence, every reception of a work is both an interpretation and performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.10

To paraphrase, it is our experience of a work that closes it, at least for that moment of experiencing it.  At the next experience, it will be different, as our own life changes, our reaction to and interpretation of the work will likewise change.  Wagner’s works are all open, with a multiplicity of interpretations that is staggering, yet at the same time “do not impinge on [their] unadulterated specificity.”  Thus, Wagnerians can be found all over the political and social map.  While his followers in Bayreuth interpreted his works in increasingly nationalistic and conservative ways after his death, this was by no means the general case.  According to Large and Weber in their Wagnerism survey:

If Wagner’s name has been increasingly associated with Nazism and the Third Reich, our survey shows some quite different tendencies.  Among the national movements we have seen, a tendency toward the Left was if anything more common than one towards the Right.11

In general, the Wagnerian movements were liberal in England, American and France, communist in Russia, and a mixed bag in Italy. Moreover, outside of Bayreuth, many German Wagnerians were much more liberal.12

To me, I can’t hear anything proto-fascist at all in Wagner’s works—quite the opposite in fact—but others can.  Neither of us is “wrong” per se; we have both “closed” his works, but in vastly different ways.  I believe the explanation for this is that the emotional content of Wagner’s music is so strong that it, essentially, creates a fairly rigid confirmation bias.We hear what we want to hear; we close it in a way that confirms our deeply held beliefs.

If Hitler was in fact influenced by Wagner’s music to do what he did, that is because he closed the work in a way that is unavailable to me and, thankfully, virtually anyone else. (There is very little evidence, by the way, that Hitler did any such thing but if that were the case, then it would be very similar to Charles Manson, who closed the Beatle’s White Album—including infamously the song “Helter Skelter”—in a way that somehow justified slaughtering a number of people he did not know.)

If Wagner had not been anti-Semitic but Hitler still had done what he did, I don’t think anyone would think Wagner was culpable. Because Wagner was publicly anti-Semitic, however, many people do think he was culpable for Hitler’s actions since he was a big fan.  This is exactly what Joachim Kohler argues in the book Wagner’s Hitler.  Yet we know that Wagner grew up in a society that was thoroughly anti-Semitic.   It wasn’t just the common folks who had these opinions, but most of his intellectual influences—Kant, Heinrich Laube, Bruno Bauer, Schopenhauer, Proudon, Johann Fichte, Mikhail Bakunin, and Hegel—were anti-Semitic.  In the blame game, they then must be also culpable, as were those who came before them.  And, thus, we must go back in time to the original sin of Jew-hating as I wrote about here.

Further, for people to believe that Wagner was that influential to be responsible for a mass murder that happened more than 50 years after his death, then they also must logically get as much credit for the product of his other influences. With this mindset, for instance, since he directly and profoundly influenced the Zionism movement founder, Theodor Herzl, we must give Wagner credit for the existence of Israel.  And if he is that influential, he must be given credit for everything that came out of Wagnerism—all the art works, all the music, and so forth. 

But that is just silly.  We know he isn’t directly responsible for any of that.  Beyond his own creative inventions, he was just an influence, albeit a significant one for many. If he had not existed, the only thing that is certain is our lives would have been different, art would have been different.  We can never know in what exact ways.  In chaos theory, changing even little things can have a large effect on later developments. A famous theoretical example is that the effects of a butterfly flapping its wings could be part of a causal chain leading to a hurricane developing weeks later. If it is true that, at least theoretically, a small thing can lead to large change, what of a Wagner, who was not butterfly-like but instead juggernaut-like?  In the film Its A Wonderful Life, we are shown how different life would have been in one small town if one man, George, had not been in it.  It’s a doable exercise because the variables are fairly small.  A comparable film could not be made with Wagner as the protagonist; I believe to remove him from history is literally unimaginable.

I have no problem with people heaping an appropriate, and fair, level of scorn and finger-pointing at Wagner for his failings as a human being.  But I do have a problem with those people ignoring his deep and positive contributions to our society, both his wonderful musical legacy and his influence in art and culture.  It deserves acknowledgement.  It deserves celebration.  He deserves credit.

End Notes

1 Grey ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wagner. This is the first line of the article “ ‘Wagnerism’: responses to Wagner in music and the arts” by Fauser, 221
2 Most of the references in this paragraph I will give in more detail later in this post or blog (or have done so earlier). There are two that won’t be covered other than this endnote. First, the Freud reference is summarized here.  The author summarizes it thus: “Wagner offered a powerful dream theory that predated by a half a century essential elements of Freud’s dream theory such as the unconscious, condensation, and secondary revision. Díaz de Chumaceiro shows that this theory was almost certainly used by Freud in formulating his own interpretation of dreams.”  The second is the reference to the promoter, which comes from this book, in which he makes the case that Wagner was the first modern promoter and that many of the techniques he used would be a template for 20th century promotion and fund-raising.
3 Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 48
4 I wrote about Wagner’s influence on Hitler here, which post goes into this whole area in detail, but specifically shows that there is no direct evidence that Hitler ever read any Wagner prose and it wasn’t his anti-Semitism that inspired him. The evidence for the Dachau reference is thin, and doesn’t relate to Jews in any case.  It comes entirely from this one source, who describes that music was used to "reeducate" the political prisoners—such as communists, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses—in the first year of the camp, with Wagner as an example of the type of music played. The belief that Wagner was played in the death camps, however, has no evidence. It is pure urban legend. The reason this is relevant is that this so-called fact is used to continue the ban on Wagner’s music in Israel.
5 Millington, ed.,Wagner Compendium, 384
6 Edward Dent, Opera, 83. For a detailed study of the influence of the Bayreuth theater, read Investing a Theatrical Ideal: Wagners Bayreuth Festspielhaus here. (You have to sign up, which is free, to read the full article.)
7 Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, 146
8 Large and Weber, Wagner in European Culture and Politics, 8
9 Dent, 128
10 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, 3 
11 Large and Weber, 278-9
12 Ibid., read conclusion for more detail on this


  1. You might be interested to know that Joachim Kohler changed his views on Wagner. Here is an article that appeared in Der Spiegel, Kohler statements are on pages 8 and 9.

  2. Thanks so much for that link. I had no idea he changed his mind, though I did know that his later book, The Last of the Titans, wasn't so unhinged, and that explains the difference.