Celebrating Wagner?

Hailing his music – haunted by his ideology


Nike Wagner, outspoken great-granddaughter of the famous composer

Do we really need to celebrate Wagner? Apart from a brief period of disenchantment in the 1920s, his music has been omnipresent in opera houses across the globe for decades. His name, thanks to the existence of his family theater in Bayreuth, provides a limitless source for headlines, even beyond the pages of the cultural supplements. He is a composer over whom as much ink has been spilled as Jesus Christ and Napoleon. An artist who, Lord knows, no longer needs any champion, anywhere on earth. One whose work, as we have witnessed, lends itself to political instrumentalization of the most disturbing kind, but from which we have nothing to fear in these post-ideological times. After all, the music of the neo-Nazi scene is heavy metal and not the overture to the Meistersinger.

The undead Wagner

German opera houses were already in a frenzy dusting off their old Wagner productions and cooking up new Ring Cycles – the pièce de résistance of any Wagner festivity – long before the 2013 ‘Wagner Year’ had even kicked off. A tsunami of new publications has gushed forth from the publishing houses. In Ken Russell’s film Lisztomania there is a scene which straddles dream and reality: vampire Richard Wagner sinks his teeth into Franz Liszt’s neck and sucks his blood. This is a brilliant analogy on the way in which Wagner exploited Liszt, ghoulishly visualizing the musical, financial and professional support he extracted from him. Over time, this relationship has been reversed and now we are the ones who won’t let Wagner rest. He is the undead, who apparently still possesses enough verve and vigor to siphon a steady supply of blood through the fangs of our culture industry. And as that magical number 200 is here, there they are again, the thousands of Wagner-drips and Wagner-needles providing us with a steady intravenous supply of Wagner’s phantasms and fantasies; bizarre characters, whose cry for “redemption” has become somewhat alien to us.

How could such a sleazy character, a trickster and a racist, write such wonderful and enduring music? The very same trap into which so many have already fallen invariably awaits. We hear it in Thomas Mann’s sigh and his emphatic “and yet!” Or we read it in Leonard Bernstein’s famous quote, “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.” And yet, ultimately, we find this conflicting “no … but yes” trap, set for us by the seductive “world erotic” of Wagner’s music, unproductive. We want out.

Uncompromising artist

What remains is his work. Despite the fact that Wagner was excessively vain, profligate, prone to politically incorrect braggadocio, stricken with an identity complex, ridden by fear of competition, and that he held a strong hatred for Jews and the French due to his inability to demarcate himself from others, in his art he was uncompromising. He never let marketing concerns dictate his art or penetrate his working process, not even for a moment. This is why he decided against a premature performance of the Ring in Munich, one which King Ludwig II had personally requested. “Better no performance at all than a bad one!” the artist explained.

One hundred and thirty years after his death, where does the ‘enduring’ aspect of Wagner’s oeuvre lie? Not with respect to his most recent successes, but rather in the sense of an aesthetic openness to his work in the present and for the future?

German and Austrian modernism, as represented by Mahler and later by Schönberg and his students, was pro-Wagner. It built on Wagner’s achievements after Tristan. His work was considered the “essential step from extended tonality to floating tonality” (Schönberg). Despite all the other continuities between the Second Viennese School and the post-1945 avant-garde, there was a Wagner caesura. There remained a distance to Wagner, albeit not primarily for ideological reasons. Only later would various discoveries be made or, better said, re-discoveries.

This newer take on Wagner was no longer principally concerned with the chromaticism of Tristan, as previous Wagner followers from the late 19th century had been. Rather, the Wagner renaissance in the early 1960s focused on his creation, the “art of sound” (Klangkunst), as exhibited in the prelude to Rheingold or the “magic fire music” (Feuerzauber) of Walküre.

Myths not history

Wagner is not just music however, but theater too. Always. The fact that our generation likes to experiment with Wagner is the triumph of creations which are so structurally open, multi-layered, and ambiguous, that nearly everyone can find his or her ‘own’ Wagner in them. The fact that his body of work offers such structural latitude (gaps in which artists can find their own niche today), is thanks to a decision Wagner made relatively early on. He opted for mythological instead of historical material as the basis for his operas. Myths are narratives without authors and have no clearly defined boundaries, but rather revolve around a constant core. They have been told and retold since time immemorial and this process has transformed them around the margins.

“But, remember, there is only one real form of deliverance from the curse which besets you – that of Ahasuerus – extermination! ” Richard Wagner – Judaism in Music



The philosopher Hans Blumenberg called this “working on the myth.” Eras in which there is a “rapid change of systemic conditions,” and we are currently in such an era, “demand new myths and re-mythification.” Every attempt to deal with Wagner, whether pro or contra, whether frivolous or profound, competent or dilettantish, inevitably also belongs to the realm of homage, as contemporary remythifications of Wagner’s oeuvre.

The following however, should always be taken into consideration. The universal artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk) and new media; and the Gesamtkunstwerk in the context of multimedia. By this I only partially refer to the more recent digital, multiple, and interactive forms. What I am primarily referring to is the direction in which Wagner’s work seduces us, it manages this both because it is “phantasmagorical,” to cite the famous term used by Theodor W. Adorno, and because creating “phantasmagoria” with modern technology has become child’s play. While there are ways Wagner can be incorporated into film and fantasy, he must not be allowed to become his own Tolkien.

Wagner’s universal work of art inhabits another realm. Starting with the disintegration of the ancient form of tragedy, he sought to realign the individual components of the arts as theater and opera. The artworks of the future should “encompass all genres of art, in order to utilize each of these individual genres, to a certain extent, as an instrument” (Wagner). What he achieved was an almost seamless unity of text and music. Just as the language and scenery are designed to match the composition and vice versa, the music is placed entirely in the service of dramatic expression. The prose-like melodies are supple and conform flawlessly to the internal state of each character. Thus the music does not function as an illustration of the scene or is merely atmospheric.

Wagner’s vision should not be confused with contemporary light-and-sound installations. This is not just because his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk was inseparably linked to his hope for a “new condition of society,” – after all, we now have democracy – but also because it demands a critical aesthetic consciousness and not just a creative one. We run the risk of merely piling on new media. However, if acoustic and visual elements can be made to substantially interpenetrate one another, if one form of art can be portrayed through the medium of another or “imitated, reflected, transformed, or commented upon” in another medium (in the words of the theater scholar Doris Kolesch), then we may hope for new universal works of art that live up to Wagner’s vision.


Richard Wagner first published his pamphlet Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music) under the pseudonym Karl Freigedank in 1850. Twenty years later, he penned a second, enlarged version, publishing it under his real name. Wagner’s essay is regarded as a landmark in the history of German anti-Semitism.

“Who has not had occasion to convince himself of the travesty of a divine service of song, presented in a real Folk-synagogue? Who has not been seized with the feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, jodel and crackle, which no international caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here …” 

Richard Wagner – Judaism in Music


Dr. Nike Wagner is the founder and director of the Weimar Pèlerinages Arts Festival, one of Germany’s most important annual cultural events. The composer’s great-granddaughter has always been outspoken on the historical ties between the Wagner clan and Nazism.

Photo Credit: Kunstfest Weimar/Stephen Lehmann, W. Bithorn/Josef Lehmkuhl

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