Friday, November 29, 2013

Wagner's Influence on Sexual Mores and Gay Culture

I believe that Wagner had a significant impact on Western cultures sexual mores. However, from my research, I can’t find much that directly supports my hypothesis. Indirectly, though, there is ample evidence to support it. Thus, I will have to make the case obliquely, with the hope that some academic in need of a doctorate will take this topic up in depth.1 

There is one exception, however, in which there is much direct evidence of his influence on sexual mores: in the area of gay culture throughout the Western world, which I will cover in the second section.

Music and Sexual Desire

Before writing about Wagner’s time, I want to say a few things about the era of my youth: the 60s and 70s.

To say music—and the musicians who create it—can influence our view of sexuality is a very difficult proposition to prove in any era. However, I think it is clear that rock n roll was a significant part of the modern “sexual revolution” that began in the 1960s, helped along by reduced inhibitions that resulted from the embrace of drugs. The phrase is “sex, drugs and rock n roll” for a reason. I am not saying that the potent combination of drugs and rock caused the sexual revolution; but it was absolutely tied into the youth movement of the time, and indivisible from it. 

Of course, the development of this movement is enmeshed with a number of cultural and political changes—such as the rise of the civil rights movement, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war—that led to a general revolt against the dominant powers of that period. As well, the widespread availability of effective contraception, particularly “the pill,” was also an important component. But, for me, growing up in that era, there is no doubt that music—and identification with some musicians—greatly influenced my views of both sex and drugs, and made it easy for me to reject the view that sexuality should be confined to marriage, and was in some way “dirty.” And the music itself was directly related to my sexual desire. While I can’t prove it was the same for everyone, I am quite sure that Beatlemania—and similar phenomena—was not “innocent” for many, but part their sexual awakening.

With that as prelude, I will now return to Wagner’s time. The move away from a repressive sexuality had long been gaining steam, ever since the advent of the enlightenment, when the church lost control over matters of the flesh. A recent book called The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Famamerz Dabhoiwala details the massive changes in Western sexual mores that was evident by the early 1800s. Men benefited from these changes much more than women, as female sexual desire was repressed during most of the century for “respectable women.”

In Germany, one manifestation of these broad changes in sexual mores was “the Young Germany” movement of the 1830s, whose agenda was—among other liberal things—“free love” and reform of laws that treated women as property within marriage. Wagner was an enthusiastic supporter of this group, and formed his ideas about love and emancipation of women in this era, all of which became firmly implanted in his music dramas, as I wrote about here and here.

In the epilogue to Laurence Dreyfus’s study of Wagner’s erotics, he writes, “It is clear that Wagner’s devotion to depictions of sexual desire was exceedingly unconventional, indeed unprecedented in the history of art.”2 This is certainly because his belief that the repression of female sexual desire as one of the big ills of society was very unconventional. Eva Rieger called the depiction of female sexual desire via Isolde “all but revolutionary.”3  I have covered all this in the posts I referenced above, but I want to make one clear point: all his female characters exhibited very strong desire, including the “virginal” ones such as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. This was particularly subversive to the dominant sexual culture.
Beardsley's Wagner Nights

Women–“respectable women”–flocked to hear Wagner’s works, and were among his strongest, most consistent supporters.4 And, while they didn’t scream à la Beatlemania, there were repeated reports of audience members—mostly women or gay men—fainting, having sobbing fits and other sorts of delirium.5 This outsized reaction to him made his critics react in horror, seeing his work as both a manifestation of illness, and a cause of it. They deemed—with their own brand of hysteria— that Wagner seduced the women (and gay men) to mental disease through his over-wrought music. He was damned as degenerate—just as critics damned rock n rollers in the same way. Nonetheless, Wagner won the cultural battle—at least for a time—as a large share of the intelligentsia reacted by embracing him, and Wagnerism was born.

Wagner’s stunning popularity and vast influence (as I wrote about here) opened the floodgates to much more sexual expressiveness in music and, for that matter, all art. He got away with it, so others now fearlessly followed in his path. In this way, he both directly and indirectly influenced the cultural perception of sexuality. The acceleration of trends towards more open sexuality of the fin de sìecle period, particularly within Germany, France and England, can certainly be traced directly to Wagner.

Wagner and Gay Cultural Development

What wrong
did those two do
when spring united them in love? 

 Wotan, in Die Walküre

As with the last section, I want to kick off this part from a more contemporary perspective: being a lesbian in America before the very recent acceptance of this identity. Back in the day, if you were gay and wanted to meet a partner, this was rather tricky. Unless they were independently wealthy, the vast majority of gay people were in the closet. You risked your life, your livelihood, your family, and membership in the community if you came out. Thus, to meet another gay person you needed codes—through dress, mannerisms, interests, activities, euphemisms. When I came out, the best way to meet other lesbians—other than a gay bar—was to get on a sports team. (Or, in my case, I officiated, and that worked just as well!) 

Geez, I was skinny then.
Anyway, this was a great way to meet fellow lesbians.
It’s not that there weren’t a lot of straight women playing sports; there certainly were. Its just that there was always a whole lot of lesbians there, too. Way more than you would find at, say, a dance class. As soon as you could identify just one safely, the door to the club was open. If you met a woman that you thought might be gay somewhere other than at a sports field or gym, you could always ask, “do you play softball?” as a sort of code. If the person was a lesbian—even if she detested sports—she could answer, “No, I hate sports, but I do admire Babe Didrikson.”6 Ah ha! By dropping that particular icon’s name, she has just safely cued you in to her status as a lesbian. (Later, one would have dropped the name Billie Jean King or, later still, Martina Navratilova. By the time Martina came out, the need to use icons instead of just honest communication, of course, had mostly subsided.) 

Babe at the 1932 Olympics.
She won 5 Gold Medals, and set 4 world records.

In the period Wagner’s greatest popularity—from the 1880s to World War I—he served as a gay icon, just like Babe or Billie Jean did to me. Essentially, if someone asked in the right tone, in the right place, “Do you enjoy Wagner’s music?” that was a code for asking if the person was gay. How did a straight man became a gay icon? Well first, as I argued here, he wasn’t considered all that straight.

In his book, Opera In The Flesh: Sexuality In Operatic Performance, the author Sam Abel offers a number of reasons:

Why, of all opera composers, did Wagner in the nineteenth century became the focal point for operatic queerness? Arguably, Wagner invited this identification through his own excessive and illicit sexual dealings, as well as a certain ambiguity in them, especially his complex feelings toward his young, attractive gay patron, King Ludwig of Bavaria. Wagner’s grandiose and self-inflated personality cult had queer undercurrents, where even the most vague associations could become amplified into a secret code. One can also argue that, if opera in general evokes marginal sexuality, then Wagner, the grandest of the composers of grand opera, the self-appointed peak of the operatic hierarchy, must necessarily represent the furthest reach of sexual marginalization. Above all, it is Wagner’s blatant evocation of sexual transgression in his music-dramas that labels his work as queer.7 

The embrace of Wagner’s music by gay music lovers certainly existed during his life. For instance, a political journalist, using code of his own, wrote in the 1870s: “Women from the upper echelons of society, those who are sensual by nature and men of an effeminate stamp made it their special concern to cultivate Wagner’s music.”8 

Magnus Hirschfeld, the heroic German sexologist and gay rights advocate, had much to do with promulgating Wagner’s association with the incipient gay rights movement that he founded in the late 1800s. Essentially, he attempted to surf the wave of Wagner’s popularity by associating him as queer, both within his own writings (coining the term transvestism to partially explain Wagner’s queerness) and by commissioning the writer Hans Fuchs to write a book on homosexuality and music, with the intent that Wagner would be among those featured. This commission turned into the first sympathetic portrait of Wagner as queer: the book Richard Wagner and Homosexuality. While they both did acknowledge that Wagner’s sexual inclinations was straight, they still saw his “feminine traits” as being akin to homosexuality.9  Fuchs called Wagner “homosexual in spirit.”10

Hirschfeld described in his 1914 book, The Homosexuality of Man and Women, the attraction of opera, and particularly Wagner, to gay men:

It is the romantic, more colorful, more sensual music, the modern music with a “literary” feature, which attracts homosexuals, while they remain more indifferent toward the classical and older music, which demands more intellectual participation. Homosexuals love the mixing of styles; they do not like purely lyrical or theatrical music, songs or symphonies, but rather “program music,” in which the sequence of musical patterns is determined by clearly establish images, ideas, and by a text; even more: they love—opera... [particularly] the modern music dramas since Wagner, especially Wagner himself.11 

Hirschfeld did interview many gay men in his research so this certainly is the opinion of more than just him, but I get the idea he is really talking about himself. Kraft-Ebbing, in his 1886 book on sexual pathology, quotes a gay man as saying: “I passionately love music, and am an enthusiastic devotee of Richard Wagner’s, which partiality I have noticed most homosexuals have; I find that this music corresponds so closely to our nature.”12  This sort of sentiment—that gay men of that era find themselves within his music—I have read in various forms multiple times. Indeed, for gay men (and lesbian women) their lives were often ones of suffering and passion, so I can see why they felt the connection to Wagner and his music.

Bayreuth—and other Wagner performances—became a destination for gay men. A sensational article in 1895 by the writer Oskar Panniza, entitled “Bayreuth and the Homosexual” characterized the festival as a noted place for homosexual rendezvous. The composer Alban Berg wrote to his fiancee in 1909 from Bayreuth about “...the ghastly horde of Wagnerian homosexuals.”13  As the softball field or a gym served lesbians, it was at Wagner’s operas that gay folks could safely find each other.

The fact that Wagner was known in his lifetime to be at least near-queer and wrote music widely seen as homoerotic, yet was given such wide-spread acceptance in Europe in spite of this fact, gave tremendous hope to gay people.  This encouraged gay artists to extend the representation of gay lives in their work, as well as to peak their heads out of the closet a bit more. It also didn’t hurt that Wagner’s son Siegfried was gay—something known in gay musical circles—which reinforced the feeling that Wagner was “one of us.” 

The world, though, wasn’t quite ready for gay folks, and some of those who peaked out their heads suffered for it. Oscar Wilde is the most notable example and the most relevant to this post. He, along with the painter Aubrey Beardsley, were the leading figures in Great Britain of what was called the “decadent movement” in fin de sìecle Europe. According to Emma Hutton in her study of the movement, Aubrey Beardsley and British Wagnerism in the 1890s, “Histories of the decadent movement of the fin de sìecle are inseparable from histories of homosexuality in Britain.”14 While hostile critics had originally coined the phrase for the movement, it was embraced by the movement itself, much as queers have recaptured that word in modern day. While many members of the movement were Wagnerians, the direct association of Wagnerism with the Decadents came via the most famous broadside against the movement, Max Nordau’s 1892 book Degeneration. He lays at the feet of Wagner the rise of the movement, and consider him the über-decadent: “Richard Wagner is in himself alone charged with a greater abundance of degeneration that all of the degenerates put together.15

A drawing of Wilde and Beardsley by Eskavi

Both Beardsley and Wilde were Wagnerians, though Wilde was irreverently so, and both made Wagner and his works a frequent subject in their art. Beardsley drew many Wagnerian scenes, but one of his most famous pieces is the drawing “The Wagnerites,” which I posted above. It is striking, of course, because it shows a largely female audience at a performance of Tristan and Isolde. At that point in time, women rarely went to the theater unaccompanied by a man. The implications of a female audience choosing to experience by themselves the most erotic opera existing was why the drawing—and phenomenon—was considered shocking and decadent.16

As for Wilde, Sutton documented that his frequent use of Wagner “indicated to informed readers his sexual tastes.” While no direct reference was made to Wagner’s works in Wilde’s trial, Sutton argues that the connection was clear:

Dorian Gray, with its Wagnerian protagonist, was a central text in the construction of Wilde’s homosexuality, and of the homoeroticism of his work... The “contrived spectacle” of the “discovery” of Wilde’s homosexuality made the association of decadence and homosexuality explicit, an association augmented, I would suggest, by Dorian Gray’s fervent Wagernism. The convention of “pathological” Wagnerism, the recent promotion of Wagner’s works by British decadent artists (notably Beardsley) and the fusion of Wagnerism with androgynous and homoerotic subjects, had made Wagnerism, in this content, a resonant indicator of homoeroticism and homosexuality.17 

Wilde’s trial served as a warning to gay people: stay in the shadows or you will be persecuted. The repression of gay sexuality continued throughout the West until the modern rise of the gay rights movement in 1969 finally led to a number of reforms, though there is a long way to go for full equality. 

The only place where real in-roads were made in the struggle for gay acceptance before the modern era was in Germany, and that was as a direct result of the work of Hirschfeld. He founded in 1897 the pioneering gay rights organization Scientific-Humantarian Committee to advance gay rights in general, with a specific goal to overturn Bismark’s 1871 law, Paragraph 175, which prohibited gay male sex.18  After the war, during the more liberal period of the Weimer republic, he founded the Institute for Sex Research, which housed thousands of books, letters and images related to the subject.  He had worked tirelessly all those years getting the word out and bringing homosexuality into the open, and the seeds he planted in the late 1890s were now bearing fruit. By the 1920s in Germany, homosexuality was roughly where it was in the early 1980s in the United States: part of the public discourse, not hidden in the shadows, with those on the left advocating repeal of anti-gay statues. In 1929, a Reichstag Committee voted for repeal of the anti-gay statutes, but that is as far as the movement advanced.

Magnus Hirschfeld
To what extent this advance was helped by Wagner’s music and Wagner’s association with gay culture, it is impossible to say. But just the fact of the discussion of his sexuality, which was on-going from the 1890s through the 1920s, certainly brought the topic of homosexuality and transvestism into the open. Because Wagner was the celebrated cultural hero of the era, and his music championed non-traditional forms of love, I would argue that it certainly was part of the reason that Germany was so far advanced in the area of gay rights.

The Nazi suppression of the movement begin in February, 1933.  All the gay bars were closed, the Institute and its library were burned, and gay rights activists were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. 

The Nazi burning of the Institution for Sexual Research's library

Hirschfeld, on a world tour at the time of the suppression, never returned to Germany. An estimated 5,000-15,000 gay people (mostly men) perished in the holocaust. Sadly ironic, of those imprisoned for being gay who did survive the Nazi regime, several were re-imprisoned by the Allies to serve out their terms.19 

Leaving that depressing tale, gay men’s appreciation of opera and Wagner’s work has extended to this day—seriously, it is impossible to go to a Wagner opera without seeing a gaggle of gay men—but the coding of him and his works as particularly queer has not; Nazi appropriation of his work killed that.

End Notes

A Postscript:

While Hitler obviously approved the decimation of gay culture, he did look the other way where homosexuals were of use to him or his friends. Thus, when Winifred Wagner wanted to protect key homosexual singers at Bayreuth, such as Max Lorenz, Hitler would accede. See here. Of particular interest in this area is the 1937 Kurt Ludecke memoir, I Knew Hitler.  He had been a confidant of Hitler, but ended up on the wrong side of the 1934 power struggle within the Nazi party that led to the “blood purge” (aka “Night of the Long Knives”) of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1934. The relevant passage concerns his attempt to get Hitler to deal with his complaints about homosexuals in the SA, and he quotes Hitler as dismissing his concern by saying, “Ach, why should I concern myself with the private lives of my followers. I love Richard Wagner’s music—must I shut my ears because he was a pederast?” (As quoted in Hidden Hitler, 280)

1 Perhaps there is some German study on this topic that I am unaware of; it is to the literature in English that I am, unfortunately, confined.
2 Dreyfus, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, 218
3 Rieger, Richard Wagner’s Women, 83
4. For an example of this, read Wagner Nights, which discusses the American cult of Wagner that centered around the conductor Anton Seidl, who was indeed a cult-like figure in himself.  This excerpt from Wagner in Performance gives a sense of this cult.
5 While this phenomenon has been noted by many, the material tends to show up in  the Wagner-as-disease motif as in this book and this article.  
6 Babe's mannish appearance led to much speculation about her, and much pressure on her.  To relieve that pressure she begin wearing more feminine clothing and make-up, and she married.  Though she remained married to her husband until her early death at age 42, for the last six years of her life she was involved with, and lived with, the golfer Betty Dodd. I don't think any lesbian believed the marriage was real, but it seemed to work for everybody else.  The issue of lesbians in sports—and the regressive reaction to it—has been written about in depth by my former romantic partner, historian Susan Cahn, in her wonderful book Coming on Strong, Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Women's Sports. And, yes, we met at a gym.  She was the player; I was the ref.
7 Abel, Sam, Opera in the Flesh, 67
8 Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, 57
9 Hirschfeld, The Homosexuality of Man and Women, 580
10 As quoted by Dreyfus, 194
11 Hirschfeld, 579-580
12 As quoted in the article by Mitchell Morris, “Tristan’s Wounds: On Homosexual Men at the Fin de Sìcele.”  This piece is going to be part of a book that Morris, a UCLA professor, is writing related to Wagner and homosexuality.
13 As quoted in Morris
14 Emma Hutton, Aubrey Beardsley and British Wagnerism in the 1890s27. This book is great, and luckily for me the UCSC library had it, but it’s $100 on Amazon.  Such a pity.
15 See this quote and more of Nordau on Wagner here.  
16 Here is an interesting analysis of that drawing and one can be found, as well,  in chapter 3 of Hutton’s book. 
17 Hutton, 52. The first two interior quotes are from Barlett, Who Was that Man, 128. 
18 Lesbian sex was never explicitly prohibited, though there were movements to do so from time to time.  It is generally true that gay men were far more persecution then lesbians throughout the Western world.  The reasons for this would make an excellent blog post, but in a different blog, for sure.
19  See here

No comments:

Post a Comment