Friday, November 22, 2013

My Feminist Critique of the Feminist Critique of Wagner

In the modern era, many feminists find Wagner to be sexist or even misogynist, both personally and in his works.  I have already written about my view of Wagner and women in his personal life in these chapters.  My conclusion was that Wagner was much more progressive then most men of his era in many ways, but that he did strongly believe that women and men were fundamentally different and had different roles to fulfill in society. To single him out as sexist for these traditional—and still widely held—views, when virtually everybody in the Western world agreed with him, is logically indefensible unless his views were much more retrogressive than his peers. They were not.

There is no doubt he had idiosyncratic ideas about women and men.  He had idiosyncratic ideas about everything. In his era, emerging feminists championed his works for the many ways they pushed the envelope.  Wagner’s women characters showed strong sexual desire, which was absolutely revolutionary at the time. They were also confident and courageous, willing to do what they desired regardless of what society impelled. This was true of Senta, Elizabeth, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Isolde, and Eva.1  He also embedded in his works, particularly The Ring, a critique of women treated as property, of the horrors of rape, and of the importance of woman’s partnership with men to create the revolutionary society that he envisioned.  All of this was extremely progressive.  From reading his letters to his many women friends and lovers—as well as from “knowing” his characters—it is very clear to me that he absolutely loved and respected woman.

One of my favorite moments in the whole Ring cycle is when Wotan strips Brünnhilde of her godhead in punishment for her defiance of him, and tells the other Walküries of her fate:

A husband will win
her womanly favors.
To this domineering man
she will belong thenceforward.
She will sit by the fire and spin,
the topic and butt of all jokers.
Does her fate terrify you?2

They all react in horror to being a subordinate wife.  Isn’t that great?  What feminist wouldn’t like that? 

On Death and his Music Dramas

So what is the beef that some feminists have with his works?  One central problem feminists have with Wagner, elaborated in Opera, the Undoing of Woman by Catherine Clément, is that the woman dies “for the man.”  It seems, to them, misogynistic that a woman cannot live without a man.  The problem with this critique is that Wagner felt just as strongly that men couldn’t live without women; personally, he certainly could not. Tristan and Isolde both die for love.  Siegmund is ready to kill Sieglinde, his unborn child, and himself rather than live without her love.  Siegfried, as he is dying, finally stops being the stupid bore that he has been since we met him, and thinks, now, only of his beloved Brünnhilde and dies to these words:

Sweet passing,
blessed terror:
Brünnhilde bids me welcome!

In turn, Brünnhilde dies for his love, too. Her last words:

Siegfried! Siegfried! See!
Your wife joyfully greets you!

Wagner made very clear that he believed that men alone could not create a revolutionary society, and in fact that the problem with modern society was that it was built solely by men.  It required that women awaken and, together with men, create a new humankind. He expressed these views in a 1854 letter to August Röckel:

Not even Siegfried alone (man alone) is the complete “human being”: he is merely the half, only with Brünnhilde does he become the redeemer; one man alone cannot do everything; many are needed, and a suffering, self-immolating woman finally becomes the true, conscious redeemer: for it is love which is really “the eternal feminine” itself.3

 The heroic images of the new man and women together.
(Just ignore it is a Soviet statue for this post.
I will circle back to the implications of this later.)
Since Wagner wanted to remake society so that love was at the center, not property and power, obviously women had the crucial role to play from his perspective. They were the antidote to what Wagner considered a loveless society, controlled by and for men.  This was not just a passing idea for Wagner, but at the very center of his thought.  His unfinished final prose work, “On the Feminine in the Human Race,” restated these ideas. 

Even if you disagree with Wagner’s view that women and men are fundamentally different—and I do only partially—I think it is fairly clear that his views aren’t based on hatred of women at all.

The other serious problem with these critiques is that there is an assumption that death is bad.  Wagner absolutely disagreed with this view, which is abundantly clear in his music dramas, his prose, and letters. In the same letter I quoted above, Wagner wrote Röckel:

Without the necessity of death, there is no possibility of life…. Therefore, to be consumed by truth is to abandon oneself as a sentient human being to total reality: to experience procreation, growth, bloom—withering and decay, to apprehend them unreservedly, in joy and in sorrow, and to choose to live—and die—a life of happiness and suffering.
We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word; fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.4

For Wagner, his life until the mid-1860s was dominated by pain and suffering. Death was attractive to him in a very real, as well as theoretical, way. Life was the tragedy; death represented the release from suffering. Thus, Wagner turns tragedy on its head. Death, at least of the principals, is almost always a good thing in his music dramas.  In fact, he only wrote one true tragedy: Lohengrin.  The hero, sadly, lives to suffer on.

This truth is in the experience of his works. I never leave Götterdämmerung sad or frustrated that Brünnhilde dies:  she dies because she wants to.  She is the truly wise person who understands it is time for a new beginning.  She leaves in order to join her love Siegfried, and to make a way for, hopefully, a better future.  I never leave Tristan and Isolde sad or frustrated for either of them: this is what they wanted ever since they fell in love. The suffering of love was too great, the reality too daunting, and the rewards of total darkness too tempting to remain alive.  I am sad, though, for the living,  King Marke and Brangane, who are both brokenhearted because it is a tragedy to them.  It is their pain I feel. But for the lovers, I only feel Isolde and Tristan’s ecstatic release from suffering. In both those cases, it is the woman who gets the last word.  The men have already passed.  Here is Wagner’s description of the bliss of death through the united voices of Tristan and Isolde from Act 2:

I myself the world;
floating in sublime bliss,
life of love most sacred,
the sweetly conscious
undeluded wish
never again to waken.

Thus might we die,
that together,
ever one,
without end,
never waking,
never fearing,
enveloped in love,
given up to each other,
to live only for love!

Now banish dread,
sweet death,
yearned for, longed for

In the case of Brünnhilde and Isolde, they die by choice, not to redeem men, but to join them. In both cases, the man wanted the very same thing. Wagner also wrote female characters, Senta and Elizabeth, whose deaths do redeem the men (and the men die, too.)  Again, though, this is not a tragedy in the works. It feels good to the listener—the music, supported by the libretto, makes it so.

Basically, some feminists really don’t like that Wagner is killing women within the dramas for what they perceive as his own bizarre needs, even though they acknowledge that the female characters are strong and brave in his works, and their deaths are heroic. What can I say? Yes, Wagner did seem to have this intense need for a woman to love him so much they would die with and for him. The thing is, he wanted the reverse to be true, too. Just like Tristan and Isolde, he wanted to become one with a woman, forever united in blissful love, blissful death. Since he realized this was impossible to get in actual life, he poured this need out in his music. And it led to this awesome, inspiring, uplifting music.  I’m truly glad he was a weirdo when it came to love.

To defend his death obsession, I do agree with him absolutely about the importance of embracing death.  I actually wrote about that here a few years ago in a blog about a cancer that I had. 
Death is just a part of the wonderful cycle of life, and it is true we will all get much more out of life if we don’t fear death and view it as a negative, but as inevitable and, in its own way, wonderful part of that cycle.

Sexism in the music itself?

The other feminist critique, most clearly expounded by Eva Rieger in her book Richard Wagner’s Women, is that the music itself sometimes or often denigrates women, while venerating men.  You can hear her critique in a lecture she gave here.  

Eva Rieger giving her lecture cited here.
In this lecture, she gives two examples of this process. 

First she discusses the music of Wotan compared to his wife Fricka.  She asserts that Wagner gives Wotan this ennobled motif, while giving Fricka less rich music, sometimes with no accompaniment. In this way, she claims, “[i]t makes her seem unpleasant.  This helps us side with Wotan.”5   

Fricka has one great scene in the cycle, in the second act of Walküre.  It is the pivotal scene of The Ring, in which Wotan realizes he has set in motion an inescapable chain of events which will lead, no matter what he does, to the downfall of the gods.  Rieger invites listeners to hear the scene and see how Wagner manipulates us to dislike Fricka. If you want to watch the scene it is here. (It is 19 minutes). 

I did just that and guess what?  That is not close to my take. Instead, I see a righteously angry woman and a delusional man, who is made to understand and accept reality by a forceful, clear presentation of  the facts.  Wotan is the irrational one; Fricka the rational.  The fact is that I do side with Wotan's point of view as he is arguing for love, but I understand that Fricka is completely correct at the same time. Her music is strong, demanding and sometimes quite beautiful in her anger.  What a fantastic scene in which the “lowly” wife brings the god Wotan to his knees. This is Eva Rieger’s idea of sexism?  Really?

About the music itself, the Valhalla/Woton theme doesn’t even make an appearance during their argument, so I don’t know how it can possibly influence me “to side with Wotan” in its absence. In any case, though his music could be considered “noble” if there were no lyrics, what I hear is pomposity, as the theme is associated with his duplicity and his morally bankrupt project, Valhalla.

Anyway, back to their musical dispute. I certainly disagree with Rieger’s contention that there is a big contrast between the music of Woton and Fricka that subconsciously pulls you to Woton’s side. Both of them sing without accompaniment at various times.  The music of Fricka is absolutely compelling and wonderful; listen at the 6:00 mark if you want to hear some beautiful, angry music.   As for Wotan's underlying music, when it is clearly “better” in the sense of beautiful and moving, it is the love music of Sieglinde and Siegmund as he fights for their right to love.  

Fricka is actually a great example of why I love Wagner’s music dramas so much:  he is very fair to all sides.  There is no doubt that Fricka was written with his wife Minna, and their arguments, in mind.  She comes off as extremely strong, capable and very hurt. If that was Minna, she was awesome. 

Rieger's other example is Brünnhilde.  She sees her change from a goddess to mortal as, essentially, degrading: that she is “tamed.”6 Certainly, it was meant as a punishment for her disobedience to Wotan's command, so, this is true on one level.  But as a goddess, she lived in a loveless world.  As a woman, she experiences the passionate wonders of love, and realizes that, in comparison, her former life had been empty.  She had been a puppet to a god; now, she made her own choice to join with Siegfried and let the gods perish. Sure, Brünnhilde originally thought of the experience of being stripped of her godhead as degrading, but then she awaken to the realization that it was as a goddess that she was truly degraded, not as a mortal woman.

Rieger makes the easily disproven claim in her book that after Brünnhilde’s role in plotting Siegfried’s death, she is denied an active role in the remainder of the plot.”7   Far from passive, offstage, she does something that Siegfried refused to do: listen to the Rhine daughters.  Armed with the knowledge given to her by them, through her commanding presence, she staves off Hagen’s quest for the Ring, gets it herself, commands a funeral pyre be built for Siegfried, commands the ravens to go to Valhalla and burn it, and returns the ring to the Rhine daughters. And, yeah, she rides her horse Grane into the fire to join Siegfried.  Even if you don’t like her self-immolation, to say she was passive, when she personally ordered the blaze that brought the downfall of the gods and cleansed the curse of the Ring, is a bizarre claim.

As for the music, Rieger claims that it shows this alleged taming.  The theme associated with Brünnhilde (and all the Walküries) is this famous one.  After she becomes mortal, some leitmotif labelers say this one then becomes her theme. Rieger seems to agree with the sentiment of Anna Russell, who joked that “love certainly took the ginger out of her.”  First, this later theme is not just associated with her.  It first appears in an orchestral piece, with instruments overlapping, high for Brünnhilde and low for Siegfried.  Then, this motif underlies both Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s following duet, along with several others.  So the idea that it is hers alone is simply wrong. That’s the trouble with leitmotif labeling: it normally conceals more than it reveals.  It is some of their love music, of which it is just a partial example. And only in the entry of the theme in the orchestra could it be considered “tame,” in any case, though this is a ridiculous word to describe this beautifully sensuous music of their love.

Rieger claims that there are no other themes associated with Brünnhilde, but that is clearly not true. Here is one. And here is another, and here another, though these two are associated with Siegfried, too, because, duh, it’s love music.  And of course, there is the most glorious leitmotif of them all that is associated with Brünnhilde.  This one

Rieger also tries to argue that the Walkürie theme essentially doesn’t define Brünnhilde any more once she turns into a woman, and that it shows up only in reference to Grane or “as memory,” as if it has no more importance to her present. But this is just another piece of easily refuted nonsense.  For instance, she sings these lyrics to Siegfried to the Walkürie motif:

As my blood surges
like a sea towards you,
do you not feel
its raging fire?
Siegfried, do you not fear,
do you not fear
this wild, passionate woman?

Clearly, she has merely traded the excitement of collecting dead bodies for passionate love; she hasn’t changed her personality. 

Another erroneous claim—it is true that I disagree with nearly every one of Rieger's assertions—is that “the text shows [Brünnhilde] is only thinking of Siegfried” during the final scene of Götterdämerung, and therefore the implication is that she wasn't really doing anything heroic or for the larger good.  I have already enumerated above that is absolutely not true.  Sure, she is entering the fire because of Siegfried, but when she is returning the Ring to the Rhine daughters and directs the burning of Valhalla, she isn't thinking of Siegfried.

Okay. Look, I don’t want to spend any more space taking down Rieger’s dubious arguments, but she is just consistently, confidently, wrong.  She knows a lot about Wagner’s women in real life, but in trying to construct a narrative that the women in his operas are somehow demeaned, she fails utterly. This is because they, the true heros of his story, are not.

Just to be fair, she does give credit to Wagner for many things, and certainly sees various aspects of him that are proto-feminist.  The problem with her critique—and any other feminist critique I have read—is that they really have to stack the deck in the sort of ways I have just shown to paint his works as misogynistic.  They read things into his works from knowledge of his life, but that actually leads them astray, imposing a narrative on the work that isn’t supported by the libretto, the music, and most importantly, the emotional reaction to the music. As for sexism: sure, the works contain within them some of the traditional views of women and men.  They don’t, in this way, transcend their time. That said, in most every other respect, Wagner’s female characters are far ahead of their time, and remain a tremendous joy to watch and hear now.

If you have a chance to get to Washington DC this May,  you should certainly see Francisco Zambello's wonderful Ring Cycle, which brings out the feminist qualities of his work far better than most - and without changing text or meaning, as do so many of the so-called regietheatre (aka Eurotrash) productions.

There is book available by Nila Parly called Vocal Victories that I think elaborates my position. 
Unfortunately, it is $50 on Amazon, so I haven’t read it. But the books blurb does state my position:

Vocal Victories claims that Wagner was far ahead of his time in terms of equality between the sexes, and the musicological analyses are supported by quotations from the composer's own writings, so that a picture of Wagner as a radical critic of the oppressive patriarchal society emerges clearly and unmistakably.

The book cover. If anyone has read it,
I'd love to know what you think.
A few bloggers have also taken up this issue.  Another critique of Rieger from a feminist perspective is here.  And from the always thoughtful blog Think Classical, an interesting blog post entitled Richard Wagner and the Divine Feminine: Wagner and Feminism is here.

There are very few explicitly feminist operas in the repertoire. The only one that comes to mind is Louise by Charpentier. But I came to Wagner’s music—and I’m writing this blog—because I am an opera-loving feminist, and he is the only composer who consistently wrote women I truly like and admire. Until a batch of equally good feminist operas comes along, Wagner’s works fill this void nicely, with music of incredible richness and beauty, and female characters who are strong, pro-active, loving and inspiring.   

End Notes

1 I am not going to address the role of Kundry here because she, and Parsifal itself, are a special case. I do want to say that I don’t think of Parsifal as an anti-woman piece as many people contend, nor do I consider it to be a retreat from his views about sexuality. From his mid-twenties on, Wagner believed that sex without love was debasing for both women and men. All the sex alluded to in Parsifal was of the debasing, loveless variety. I wrote about his views on this here, previously. Also, on Kundrys death: it is a wonderful thing in the work.  She has lived for thousands of years (via reincarnation), and is seeking peace, rest, death.  She finally gets it. Anyone who thinks it is somehow a negative that she died is missing the point completely.
2 All Wagner libretti can be found at this site.  All quotations from the operas come from here.
3 Spencer and Millington, ed., The Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 307
4 Ibid., 302
5 This quote is from the talk I referenced above. She discusses this scene beginning at 15:00. 
6 This is as quoted here by Chris Walton in a review of Rieger’s Richard Wagner’s Women 
7 As quoted by Walton.


  1. Wonder full argument as always, I hope it continues beyond 2013 - despite suggestions to the contrary?

    And not wishing to nit pick over typos - I am hardley one to criticise - "He expressed these views in a 1954 letter to August Röckel:" should be 1854?

    1. Thanks for the correction. They are always appreciated (whether for typos or any other thing).

      Alas, the blog ends at the end of the year, as is the plan. So I have five more posts to go! I need to get back to my life!

    2. A great pity. To my shame, I only discovered very recently and am thus catching up. But I understand. And thank you for what is here. I shall await the last five posts with interest.

  2. See what I mean about typos! Clearly that should have read "wonderful"

  3. I'm surprised you forgot propably the most overtly feminist excerpt in Wagner's works. In act 3 of Die Meistersinger Walther sings to Hans Sachs in his shop the first stanza of his dream song and then the dialogue follows:

    "Das war ein "Stollen"; nun achtet wohl,
    dass ganz ein gleicher ihm folgen soll. "
    (That was a "stanza": now see to it
    that one just like it follows )

    Warum ganz gleich?
    (Why just like it? )

    Damit man seh',
    ihr wähltet euch gleich ein Weib zur Eh'.
    (So that one can see
    that you're choosing an equal as a wife. )