Was Wagner a bad person?
The year 2013 celebrated the 200th birth year of Germany’s musical ogre Richard Wagner, who provoked – as the legend goes – more books and articles in the wake of his activities than Jesus Christ and Napoleon. So, commemoration articles everywhere echoed something that seems to have become a broad consensus: he was a musical genius, but a thoroughly bad antisemitic character who initiated the Second World War and the holocaust. The German magazine Der Spiegel sported a picture of Wagner with a fire-spitting dragon in his hands over the text: ‘200 years Richard Wagner – the insane genius’. The magazine Die Zeit compared Wagner with Verdi, underlining Wagner’s eternal debts (while Verdi was a successful entrepreneur), his stealing other men’s wifes and other composers’ ideas, and presented a list of negative criticism Wagner provoked, etc. etc. – everything seen from the point of view of post-Wagner history. Also on the many internet sites which deal with the classical music world, Wagner gets a bad deal. But what kind of man must he have been in reality?
We look upon Wagner from our contemporary point of view, with the experience and knowledge accumulated since his death in 1883. We look upon him, say, from a future which was unkown to him, a future in which his works acquired an important meaning, positive and negative, within European culture and not merely in music: also in art theory, literature and poetry his influence was immense, and eventually also in politics through the annexation of some of his ideas by dangerous nitwits. Criticizing the negative influence is always a good thing but attributing the responsibility of all of the results of this influence solely to Wagner is obviously wrong, as is ‘excusing’ him because of the great music he wrote.
All the things which are wholeheartedly despised: the grandiloquence, the insistent loudness, the unlikely heroic plots, the pumped-up emotionalism, the immense length, the confused writings, the virulent antisemitism, have assumed a scale and meaning carried by the greatness of much of his music. Were he a mediocre composer, all this would not have attracted any attention. But the result is that we now look upon these things, as it were, under a magnifying glass, and even amplified more so because of the Second World War. But this is a totally opposite picture from the one which was the reality of Wagner’s life and personality.
Who was Wagner the man, the artist, as a person? Reading much of the currently available biographical material and especially his letters, reveals someone, on one hand fully aware of an immense talent, and under the influence of a creative force stronger than himself, urging him to bring into the world a body of work which would contribute to its culture and to the life experience of audiences, and on the other hand a very unhappy person, continually suffering from psychosomatic symptoms and intense mood swings, having difficulties with controlling behavior and body language, feeling alienated from the world around him, and seeing that his unconsidered but courageous attempts to change something in this world, backfired and alienated him even more. He started-out without much response in the territory where he knew he needed to get his ‘message’ across, and with relatively modest earnings, which he could not handle well, while in the same time he needed to surround himself with a dreamy fantasy world of sensual luxury to be able to answer the creative need. Whenever he found the means, mostly loans from friends and wealthy supporters, he created an environment which had to provide a fundamental distance from the world which often threatened to demoralize him and thus, disrupt the composition process. But these attempts merely created more alienating problems because the means he had to his disposal were never sufficient to pay for it all. In this vicious circle he viewed the hostile forces, which rejected his works and thus hindered his attempts to raise the funds he needed for his composing, from a position of the outcast, the unjustly excommunicated artist whose contribution was considered irrelevant, or dangerous to the musical status quo. Hence, his critique upon bourgeois mores and the then developing capitalism, represented by the powerful ‘Jewish’ part of the elite in the society of the time.
Even when Wagner’s works got famous and turned into a cultural force to reckon with, there was an immense anti-movement; the many storms of critique and vicious attacks in the press – in short, the immense resistance he had to face, and very much of it merely grotesque misunderstanding of his work and ideas, has by now more or less died-down to a mere grumbling, but for Wagner it was a real and immense barrier he had somehow to overcome if his work was to survive and be viable. In spite of what people thought of the ‘hardness’ of his character, he was over-sensitive to other people’s reactions, because of being – deep down – insecure about himself and his work, like so many great artists. His by times primitive egocentrism and ‘hardness’ can be best understood as a shell behind which he could hide a vulnerable ego…. which he tried to pump-up as much as possible when in the reality of the world, where he provoked storms from every corner. Especially the critique from the settled music academics worried him, musicology being in its first development when the dynamics of classicism (especially of Beethoven’s music) was, for the first time, analysed and codified as perfect and prescriptive examples of musical greatness. Since he thought of his artistic project as a further development of Beethoven’s music into his ‘total work of art’, the negative comparisons with his great example were especially painful.
It is thus no surprise that the great success of his classicist and younger rival: Johannes Brahms, posed an immense threat to his artistic project and its claims on cultural value; people who disliked Wagner and his works, used Brahms to undermine everything Wagner stood for, especially his transgressing of the structures, and melodic and harmonic boundaries of what was thought at the time to be the ‘classical tradition’. (This nagging problem: his position vis-a-vis the classical tradition, became the inspiration for Meistersinger.) Thus, Wagner did his best, whenever he could, to attack Brahms and his attempts to further develop the classical tradition, which has to be understood as a defence against an imagined threat…. since Brahms was a symphonist, and Wagner wrote ‘music drama’, there should be no reason why these two different musical forms could not exist next to each other, as they do nowadays. Even after Wagner had become an important voice in the ‘European concert’ of serious music in the 2nd half of the 19th century, music professionals invested lots of effort and time to debunk Wagner and his work in books and articles, and in contrast with its successes with audiences. There was even a professor of medicine who wrote a book to ‘demonstrate’ that Wagner was insane, and thus his works the products better be avoided if people preferred to keep a healthy mind and emotional life. We can now laugh at such efforts, but at the time these publications had their fatal influence because they could be easily picked-up by anti-Wagnerians to support their points of view. The quarrels surrounding the ‘Wagner question’ caused families to break-up, friendship to dissolve, enmities to flare-up in otherwise calm gatherings of musicians and music lovers, as well as litterati and the communities of various cultural consumers. Circulating stories about his stealing wives from his benefactors and his eternal mismanagement of money, his eternal debts and failure to pay them back, his assumed exploitation of the King of Bavaria and his grandiose plans for a Wagner-theatre, and the utterly embarrassing publication of his private letters to the Viennese seamstress from whom he ordered satins, silk underwear and feminine robes-de-chambre merely added fuel to the fire (this publication by a Viennese journalist was wholeheartedly encouraged by Brahms, who saw his chance to get back at his bully).
It is difficult for us now to fully understand the raging emotions surrounding Wagner and his art, but in a time and society without big-screen cinema, loud media culture, without recordings of music, and an elite under the strong influence of romanticism with its genius cult, revolutionary fervor and faith in progress, social and scientific, Wagner’s works were gun powder: just a little spark of emotionalism and the operatic experience got up into flames, warming one and burning another. Being at the center of such an over-heated emotional climate requires a very cool and rationalistic predisposition, which were the characteristics Wagner obviously did not possess. His was a romantic temperament, not a classicist one, and we thank to that predisposition some of the greatest music ever written.
Wagner thus always felt on the defensive and never thought that his work would, eventually, form an organic part of European culture, let alone that it would acquire the importance close to the core of the musical repertoire as we know it today. This eventually turned into a fanatic paranoia, since he could simply not understand why so many people hated his work, while so many other people were enraptured by it. The ‘betrayal’ of young Nietzsche, which Wagner thought of as the first really supportive academic in contrast with so many hostile ones, and who so fully seemed to embrace Wagner’s ideas and Weltanschauung, was a most painful blow he never understood, and Nietzsche’s poisonous critique in public space a reminder of his ‘isolated postition’: he could not trust anybody, he had to fully rely on himself, and on his fanatical wife and a small circle of adherents. A normal and interesting exchange with people more or less on his level seemed impossible…. his music and ideas were too close to all kinds of explosive cultural and political questions of his time so that an objective atmosphere, suited to intellectual exchange, always seemed elusive. One has to realize what such things do to an oversensitive creative personality. Wagner must have felt that either he was indeed a crazy crank, as so many people seemed to be convinced of, or he was a genius, towering above anybody, anything else, above his own time and society, with the only hope of some real understanding in some unforeseeable future – about which he was, in a Schopenhauerian way, rather pessimistic.
This distorted, extreme view of himself and his work only stimulated the typical above-mentioned Wagner-traits which have been criticized since its inception – it is all a way of overcompensating an immense insecurity and anxiety syndrome. He had to believe fanatically in his very subjective and often flawed views upon music, music history, and the development of contemporary music of his own time, to be able to keep going and to go on composing. If he would give-in to the often profoundly pessimistic and depressed states of mind which, of course, were regularly visiting him, he would have to hang himself. He thus desperately clang to his opinions as if they were the Ten Commandments, in spite of his regular doubts…. he had to be the ‘great genius’ who would totally ‘reform’ contemporary music and create a musical art, in the wake of the overtowering figure of Beethoven, that could stand comparison with the best of this classical example. In such an extreme vision, there could be no place for alternatives or a bit of healthy relativism. Thus a more objective view upon his great rival Brahms, whose artistic project calmly refuted all his theories about the ‘demise of symphonic writing’ which had to justify his claim on priority status, was always out of reach.
The irony of Wagner’s post-Parsifallian ideas of taking-up purely symphonic writing shows the instability of his convictions. The first performance of the complete Ring cycle in 1876 in his Bayreuth theatre was, apart from a financial disaster, also a deep disappointment about the staging. On top of that, the orchestral writing appeared to be often too complex and too loud, which he ‘corrected’ in the score of Parsifal, which was the only one of his works written with the possibilities and limitations of his personal stage and pit of Bayreuth in mind. One can understand the longing to compose unburdened by all these practical problems, and of course that would mean – in his case – symphonic writing. At one occasion, he discussed the ‘symphonic idea’ with Liszt, claiming that ‘the symphony’ could live again but not as a four-movement quasi-architectural structure but as a flexible one-movement form where not the contrasts between theme groups, as in Beethoven, would be the focus, but the gradual variation upon different themes which would evolve naturally from each other. One can hear in this vision an echo of the music of Parsifal where symphonic writing often indeed fulfills this ideal, and the structures of Liszt’s symphonic poems and his great one-movement sonata that Wagner knew and wholeheartedly admired. For new to be written symphonies he kept various sketches in his files 1), which would be worked-on after the performances of Parsifal. But he died before he could realize his plans.
Then there is the ‘ethical Wagner problem’…. his pursuing of his vision without any concern for the consequences, for him personally or for other people. Why couldn’t he do better? A lot of his behavior can be understood by trying to see the world from his own position in it, how he must have seen himself in a wider context. Wagner was a very short and quite ugly man, with an disproportionedly big head and hooked nose, thin lips and sharp chin, always nervously moving his limbs, a man with a great but confused and untrained intellect and a rather unbalanced emotional temperament, over-sensitive and often incapable of controlling his emotional reactions. In short: he was not an ‘imposing’ figure, in proportion to the greatness of his ambitions and achievements; he was a ‘strange’ little fellow with ‘odd’ ideas, and not the type of ‘great artist’ as the 19th century liked to see the species: an idealized, grand figure rising above the common sphere of life. He knew that there were people making fun behind his back by calling him, due to his short stature, a ‘pocket-size genius’. (There is the interesting report by an American journalist who visited one of the Bayreuth Festival’s receptions and was stunned to find-out that the Great Composer was, in fact, that little lively man with the big head who jumped around a group of pretty girls he entertained, in stark contrast with the other guests in dignified, haute-bourgeois garb and classic poses of self-importance.) He knew from the beginning of his career that he had an immense musical talent, but suffered greatly from the rubbing of his personal world with the world at large, and let us not forget that musical life around 1850 was, seen from our point of view, primitive, full of amateurism and people out-there merely interested in parading as an artist and grab money where they could, and the musical audience being quite unsophisticated (being part of the early development of bourgeois society which embraced high culture as a status symbol). For a sensitive artist type such a sphere is a jungle without justice or rules, where only ‘the survival of the fittest’ could create a career, a world without professionalism and without morality, full of poseurs. One only needs to read Berlioz’ memoirs to see what a mess music life was at the time. The humiliations, poverty and indifference Wagner suffered at the beginning of his career, taught him that, as far as the world was concerned, if he wanted to realize his artistic potential, all means would be permitted. Less would not do. Being an ethically highminded artist would definitely cause his Untergang.
So, he pumped-up all the things that were inflatible, feeling that he had to make a lot of noise to create a place for his work and thus, for himself. Hence the virulent promotion of himself as the Only Great Groundbreaking Genius who embodied the apotheosis of German Musical Genius. Only very late in life his work would indeed find a footing in the world, but untill then this acceptance was not very likely, given the volume and range of resistance and attacks. Germany in the first half of the 19th century was, culturally speaking, an area with a strongly classical and romantic character, classical in a more general way due to the humanist educational system of the elites, and romantic as far as artistic circles were concerned – an elite of another kind, and defined by artists like Heine, Novalis, Hölderlin, Eichendorff, the Schlegel brothers, Schumann, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jean Paul, Caspar David Friedrich, Runge. Wagner’s journey went into deeper and more dangerous waters and was always an adventurous and risky one where all eggs were in one basket and the end goal insecure. That he exaggerated in the process, is understandable, but he was not a ‘monster’. Wagner is sometimes compared, as an artist, on ethical grounds, with Beethoven, who always tried his very best to be a morally ‘good person’ and more or less succeeded in spite of his handicap and underdeveloped social skills. But Beethoven had been supported from his youth onwards, he always had patrons who financially backed him up; he began his career early-on as a pianist and quickly got famous with it. He had always been a star in the aristocratic circles who were the trend setters at the time and freely participated in the social life of aristocratic Vienna where he was venerated as its ultimate cultural icon. Wagner did not start-out with such backing; it was Franz Liszt who, in the eighteen-forties, was the first and only professional musician who fully understood the scope of Wagner’s talents and tried to help him as much as he could, both psychologically and financially – which must have been quite a hard job, given their very different characters and Wagner’s repeated begging for financial and emotional support. In short: Wagner had many more obstacles to conquer, both practically, psychologically and musically than Beethoven: he built upon existing musical traditions but created a very personal idiom which was, for most people at the time, hard to take. In contrast with Beethoven, he started-out as an outsider – and his ungainly looks and behavior, in combination with a heavy Saxon accent, did not help things very much.
Then his antisemitism. He saw all around him the corruption and exploitation characterizing the first development of grand industrialization of society, and understood it rightly as destructive and dehumanizing, and a grave threat to culture. Hence his stance against ‘modernity’ as represented by early urbanization and industry. Many successful and brilliant business men and bankers, strong driving forces behind social changes and industrial capitalism, were people from Jewish descent, as many people of the press were (the press was almost always unanimously dismissive of Wagner’s work). Wagner naively – as did so many other people at the time - connected one thing with the other and thought that it was the ‘Jewishness’ which caused all the destructive forces in society. A simplistic and naive mistake of judgement, like thinking – after seeing many red-haired communists – that they are communists because of their hair colour.
Wagner’s was a rather confused mind, trying to combine things in his quasi-philosophy which are mutually exclusive. In other words: there is no unity or clarity in his ideas. But he could make clear observations, even where his conclusions and interpretations faltered. He clearly understood the damage that rampant materialism, as stimulated by the industrialization and the development of a scientific world view, was doing to culture and artistic idealism; he rightly deplored the vulgarity of contemporary music life where amateurism and commercialism reigned – being the first stage of what we now know as ‘the central performance culture’. Because of the liberation of the Jews from their ghettos at the beginning of the 19th century, with the acquisition of civil rights, they quickly formed an important part of the elite, in science, business, and the arts, freely exercising their many talents formerly suppressed by social isolation and restrictive religion. As said before, Wagner related the destructive forces of his time to the ethnic background of many of its perpetrators, which is plain stupid; a bad Jewish banker was a bad banker, and not because he was Jewish. So, Wagner’s antisemitism was first and foremost a cultural and social critique, and by mistake clothed in racist terms. Racism was – by the way – a usual mistake in the 19th century; it was the first epoche of discovery of many other races and cultures in a more or less scientific way. This 19C racism was a kind of generally accepted way of looking at people, due to increasing knowledge of other continents and other cultures, a kind of self-congratulating ethnic labelling but without the holocaustic overtones it has acquired in our own time. Many people who thought that ‘Jewishness’ in itself had no place in European society, advocated conversion to Christianity, an idea often supported by Jews themselves; in this context, Jewishness was seen as a ‘Weltanschauung’, a way of looking at the world which – in spite of the Jewish roots of European civilization – was considered incompatible with modern, European values. Jews could ‘outgrow’ this ‘unpleasant’ background and ‘assimilate’. This is the explanation of Wagner’s friendships with individual Jews. As he said himself of his antisemitism: ‘It is not personal’. The hatred and personal venom in his antisemitism was fuelled by the bad treatment he got in the first stage of his career, when he saw his opportunities blocked by exploitative rivals who did not like to open their ranks to this odd character. That they were often Jews, was irrelevant, but for Wagner that proved the racist point. Tragic…. but this did not make him responsible for the holocaust.
Then there is…. the sensitive subject of ‘Wagner and money’. Notorious is his saying that ‘the world’ owed him what he needed, what could not possibly be considered an encouragement for potential benefactors/sponsors, since it implied that their money – as far as it was earned by their own work and not owned through inheriting – was Wagner’s by right, a nonsensical notion that understandably could only provoke indignation. But this expression merely reveals that Wagner looked at himself ‘posthumously’, that is: through the eyes of an imagined posterity which would fully understand his achievement. He knew that he was an important cultural figure, in spite of his doubts about the viability of his output, and that in this sense whatever money was paid to him for his works, were peanuts in comparison of what the oeuvre would be worth, also and particularly in the future if or when it would be understood. So, in the broad scheme of things, he was perfectly right, but of course he should have kept such understanding to himself. Also his financial negotiations with patrons were conducted with insight and intelligence, or – as some would see it – cleverness, but the follow-up of agreements treated carelessly and with the naive assumption that his works were so great that any deviation from contracts would be generously forgiven. Especially the support by Ludwig II of Bavaria has been the subject of accusations of manipulation and exploitation on Wagner’s side, whereby often is forgotten that the entire project of financial support of Wagner was entirely an initiative taken by the king, who wanted to be part of the great enterprise that was the Ring, and the other operas, which Ludwig believed belonged to the world at large and would fulfill his own need to be ‘creative’ in the eyes of posterity, if only indirectly as a patron. In this, Wagner and the king were in full agreement and mutual understanding. The king received full and extensive recognition and mention in all the works Wagner finished under Ludwig’s patronage, and the king’s reputation in history rests for a great part on his saving Wagner from his almost-bankruptcy, and much of his output for the world. And the money Wagner wanted for his luxurious life style tastes was piecemeal in comparison to what the king spent on his building projects, which would bring-in so much tourist money for Bavaria in a later age.
Then Wagner’s supposed ‘bad character’, his ‘nastiness’, tactlessness, rude jokes, his seeming ignorance of all the normal considerations of morality. But also here, things are a bit different from how they look from the outside. The emotional life of creative people, and certainly artists as gifted as Wagner, has a degree of intensity that requires a balancing power of conscious discipline to be able to handle that intensity. We know from biographical material of artists that they often seem to have an underdeveloped capacity of self-restraint, which – on acknowledging their emotional capacities – appears not to be ‘underdeveloped’ but simply not enough to reign a field of emotional experience, vaster than average people’s. With Wagner, the diverse and contradictionary emotional drives that with most people are more or less kept in check, were very close to the surface and bubbled-up under the least touch: we know that people in his environment complained about his lack of restraint which could be both charming and annoying, depending upon context. In his works, his capacity for infinite variation of basic material created vast canvasses of music and drama, which could only be less functional in a social context, like his longwinded private ‘lectures’ at home for an audience of well-disposed, and extremely patient, friends. The discipline, emotional and otherwise, necessary to put his musical visions into scores of a size unmatched by anything written before, required a degree of calm and patient technical calculation that would be out of reach for even the most dedicated and gifted composer; it seems to be reasonable to conclude that with Wagner, his stock of disciplined willpower was completely exhausted by such work, with the result that there was not much left for the other departments of life. So, while with more ‘adapted’ adults the negative and destructive emotional drives and reactions are mostly kept in the dungeon of the normal suppression that civilization requires, with Wagner they were ventilated freely and without inhibition, creating the impression of a personality more negative than he actually was: he did not murder anybody (like Gesualdo), did not steal (! his money lending cannot be construed as ‘theft’), and when the occasion arose to really get into physical conflict as in the Dresden uprising in 1848, he just fled. But because most people like to hide their negative characteristics and present a more acceptable exterior, they were shocked at Wagner’s emotional exhibitionism, and focussed upon the thus exposed unpleasant sides of his character and overlooked his good ones, like his generosity towards friends, his enthusiasm for their presence (however seen from an egocentric point of view), his capacity – however selective – for compassion, his love for animals, and his passionate love for music, including the music of the composers he profoundly admired like Bach and Beethoven, and – yes – Liszt. And all the different and mutually-exclusive emotional characteristics and drives went into his operas, where they depicted an immense range of human variety, and all of it with an emotional intensity that makes them entirely credible (apart from one character: Siegfried, who destroys every scene upon which he sets a foot – but also great artists are allowed their occasional miscalculations). So, Wagner had not a ‘bad character’, but the negative sides of his personality were much more visible than is usually the case. And his enemies gratefully made use of that visilibity.
Wagner made a mess of his life by his uncontrolled behavior, fierce fighting spirit, mounting debts and provocatively expressing his boundless faith in his talents, which – as expounded above – was a survival strategy and a compensation of a deep-seated insecurity and despair about the possibility of survival of his life work, a mess which almost ended in fatal ruin just before he was rescued by the Bavarian king. His second wife Cosima helped him by putting tape around all his problems and managed his ‘contacts with the world’ in such a way that he could work undisturbed. It was she who has petrified the unpleasantness of some of Wagner’s temperamental traits into something more fixed and negative than they originally were – she ‘institutionalized’ the rough splinters of a grumpy and neurotic temperament into the Bayreuth Festival enterprise, from where they could spread through the circles that cultivated rightwing antisemitism and chauvinistic nationalism, providing a fertile mix for Hitler’s paranoia.
In short, Wagner was unbalanced, over-sensitive, insecure, psychologically ‘over-eating’ (all insecurity traits) and had not enough discipline left for managing his worldly contacts. He deserves, only on the basis of his negative experiences with the musical world and his achievements, some license. Understood as a human being in an extraordinary position – both historically and artistically – he was not as bad as people nowadays want to paint him. The man was complex and full of contradictions, and who is not? Only, we don’t write that kind of music and may be better adjusted to the real world than such an artist who was under the inner pressure of immense creative drives. Let us experience the music without the smug moralism that makes us feel ‘superior’.
John Borstlap / 2013-14
1) One of these sketches, the ‘Romeo und Juliet’- theme, has been used in the symphonic poem ‘Psyche’; see the ‘list of works’ elsewhere on this site.