Aspects of Wagner: A Review

Bryan Magee’s Aspects of Wagnermageeaspects

2,372 words

Bryan Magee
Aspects of Wagner
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988

In preparation for the Wagner bicentennial on May 22, I have been listening to, watching, and reading about Wagner non-stop. But one’s enjoyment of art and ideas is magnified by sharing them with others. So I am going to get you in the Wagner spirit, or drive you crazy trying, with a series of reviews and essays leading up to the week of May 22, when we will run a memorial symposium on “Our Wagner,” which will also be published as a book by Counter-Currents.

Bryan Magee’s Aspects of Wagner, a slender volume of 102 pages, is an ideal place to begin if you want to learn what the fuss is about Richard Wagner.

Magee, b. 1930, is a prolific British writer and broadcaster whose specialty is the popularization of philosophy. His excellent televised interviews with philosophers, conducted during the 1960s and ’70s, are now available on YouTube and have been transcribed and published as three books: Modern British Philosophy (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971), which is the best introduction to 20th-century analytic philosophy ever (it convinced me that I did not need to know more), The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), which deals with the history of philosophy more broadly, and Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers(a.k.a. Men of Ideas) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), which deals broadly with 20th-century philosophy, including Existentialism and the Frankfurt School. He is also the author of Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1985).

Aside from Aspects of Wagner, my favorite books by Magee are his magisterial The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), his moving autobiography Confessions of a Philosopher (New York: Random House, 1998), and The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), which I will review as well. (For more about Magee’s life and other works, see his Wikipedia page.)

Aspects of Wagner is in many ways Magee’s most remarkable book because it is a miracle of concision and clarity. For instance, the first chapter, “Wagner’s Theory of Opera,” distills the essence of Wagner’s theory of opera from a number of rather prolix and difficult books – The Art Work of the Future (1849), Art and Revolution (1849), Opera and Drama (1850–51), and A Message to My Friends (1851), among others — down to about 10 pages.

But before telling us what Wagner’s theory is, Magee notes that it is remarkable that Wagner worked out a theory of opera at all. Most composers before and since have not felt the need of an articulated theory of opera. Moreover, creating art and theorizing about it require very different cognitive skills, which are seldom, if ever, combined in the same person, or if they are, one faculty tends to be much weaker than another. Thus it is often the case that the greater the artist, the less he has of interest to say about his work. He is too busy creating it to reflect on it.

Wagner, then, was a unique phenomenon: a man who combined creativity and reflective theorizing in the same mind and excelled a both, although his artistic achievement is, of course, more significant.

Wagner believed that Greek tragedy was the pinnacle of human creative achievement, for five reasons: (1) it had unrivalled capacity for expression because it combined together a whole range of creative arts; (2) it derived its subject matter from myth, which has the capacity to move more people more deeply than any other form of storytelling; (3) it was religious in both its source materials and the occasions for its performance; (4) it was based on a this-worldly religion, a celebration of Earthly life; and (5) it involved the whole community.

Wagner did not deny that drama and especially music have progressed since ancient Athens. For Wagner, Shakespeare was a greater dramatist than Aeschylus and Sophocles, and Beethoven had developed the expressive power of music beyond anything in history. Modern opera, by combining modern music and modern drama, could and should be the greatest art form in world history. (By the same token, film now has even greater aesthetic potential than opera.)

For Wagner, the music in opera is analogous to the chorus in a Greek tragedy, which is ever-present and which tells us the meaning of the events on stage. But a chorus can only tell, whereas music–especially music since Beethoven–can give you a direct experience of the inner states of the characters. (Wagner was a great psychologist, who used myth and music to plumb the depths of the soul, anticipating many of the ideas of Freud and Jung.)

Wagner was, in short, the inventor of the “soundtrack,” meaning the seamless integration of music and drama that reveals the inner emotional states of the characters and other truths that could otherwise only be narrated — or conveyed wordlessly by a really good actor. The first composers for the movies utilized Wagnerian techniques, including distinct musical themes for characters, ideas, objects, and emotions. Thus my advice to someone who is seeing an opera for the first time is to think of it as a movie with a really good soundtrack. (As a first opera, I recommend only Puccini’s Tosca, although his La Bohème or Madame Butterfly will also serve.)

According to Wagner, modern opera consistently failed to attain the artistic and social significance of Greek Tragedy because its potential for synthesizing artforms and producing profound religious experiences for a whole community was blocked by the dualism that gave rise to Christian otherworldiness and profane secular modernity, the elitism that made opera a preserve of bourgeois and aristocratic society, the commercialism that makes opera a privately traded commodity rather than a sacred experience shared by the whole community, and the cynicism of composers who sought to enrich themselves by pandering to their audience’s vulgarity and vices, thus becoming accomplices in their corruption, rather than working edify their tastes and characters.

Wagner was a revolutionary German nationalist and socialist. He was also a revolutionary artist. Wagner plotted social revolution to transform art. In 1849, he joined the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in the Dresden uprising. When the revolution collapsed, Wagner fled into exile and spent the next six years plotting an artistic revolution to transform society.

After six years devoted to producing a series of theoretical books and essays, Wagner began composing Der Ring des Nibelungen, his first attempt to fuse the artistic unity, mythic subject matter, this-worldly religiosity, and social significance of Greek tragedy with the expressive power of modern music. He went on to compose Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and Parsifal in the same vein. (For an actual marriage of Shakespeare and Wagnerian composing techniques, see Verdi’s late masterpiece Otello.)

Based on the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied, the Ring is a cycle of four operas, some 16 hours of music played over four nights (usually with days off for the singers after the second and third installments), which begins with the origins of the cosmos and ends with the fiery destruction of the Norse gods and the inauguration of the age of man. It is Feuerbachian humanism and revolutionary nationalism and socialism set to music, although by the time Wagner finished it, his revolutionary ardor had been cooled by maturity and the cold, hard cash showered upon him by royal patrons.

But it was not enough for Wagner merely to compose these operas. In order to establish their social/religious significance and insure the best possible performances, Wagner built his own opera house and created a regular international festival for the performance of his works in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. To this day, the Bayreuth Festival is the center of an international Wagner cult run by Wagner’s descendants.

It was a stunningly ambitious, not to say megalomaniacal, project which Wagner nevertheless achieved through superhuman creative and organizational labors. His goal was not just to change the opera world but the whole world, and in many ways he succeeded. As Magee puts it, ”Wagner has had a greater influence than any other single artist on the culture of our age” (p. 56).

In chapter 3, “Wagnerolatry,” Magee entertainingly surveys the extraordinary extremes of adulation and hostility that Wagner provoked during his lifetime and still provokes today. According to Magee, the key to both responses is the fact that Wagner’s music stirrs deep, repressed emotions, an experience which some people experience as a threat and others as a liberation.

In chapter 4, “The Influence of Wagner,” Magee briefly surveys Wagner’s influence in music, literature, poetry, the visual arts, and the performance of classical music and opera. For instance, Wagner was the prime inspiration of the Symbolist movement in French literature — and more through his theoretical writings than his operas. Wagner also inspired the novelist Edouard Dujardin to introduce the interior monologue into the novel, where it would play the same role in literature as the Wagnerian orchestra played in opera (pp. 47–48).

Wagner was not just a musical and theoretical genius. He also permanently changed the way operas and classical music are performed. Before Wagner, operas were performed in lighted houses so that people could dine, play cards and dice, gossip, and come and go as they pleased during the performances. Wagner was the first composer/conductor to dim the house lights, close doors to latecomers, and insist that audiences remain absolutely silent, reserving their applause to the end of acts. Wagner invented new lighting techniques, backdrops on sliding panels, the steam curtain, and many other innovations in stagecraft. He was also a brilliant actor and mime who coached and rehearsed singers meticulously and left copious notes for future performers. Finally, Wagner revolutionized the conducting of classical music, creating through his writings and direct teaching the tradition of the imperious “star” conductor that continues to this day.

Chapter 5, “Wagner in Performance,” and chapter 6, ” Wagner as Music,” masterfully ease the reader into actually listening to Wagner, which is the whole point anyway. I will share my own recommendations at a future date.

I saved Chapter 2, “Jews–Not Least in Music,” for last, because it should have been relegated to an appendix. The reason why it is chapter 2 is simple: Aspects of Wagner is a labor of love, and the main impediment today to loving Wagner is the issue of anti-Semitism, thus Magee evidently felt it must be cleared away as quickly as possible. Wagner was an anti-Semite in both senses of the word: he hated Jews and Jews hated him. It did not help matters that Wagner was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. Hitler was a personal friend of the Wagner family and a generous patron of Bayreuth and Wagner performance in general.

Of course Wagner has not said an unkind word about Jews since his death in 1883, but Jews have not remained silent. In spite of the fact that many Jews are passionate lovers of Wagner’s music, including Jewish conductors like George Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine who are among Wagner’s most skilled interpreters and advocates, attacking Wagner is still a minor Jewish industry, regularly churning out books and articles and maintaining a steady cultural background whine of indictment. To this day, there is an unofficial ban on performing Wagner in Israel.

Wagner made no bones about the fact that his anti-Semitism was based on bitter personal experiences with Jews. But Magee shows that there were matters of deep principle involved as well. For Wagner, authentic art was related to a particular culture and tradition and could only be created by somebody steeped in that tradition since birth. Thus in his pamphlet Judaism in Music (1850) and related writings, Wagner accused Jewish composers like Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and Halévy of creating shallow, inauthentic, meretricious music because as Jews, they were foreign to the European musical traditions and European culture more broadly and instead took their bearings from the business of producing commercially successful, popular entertainment. Wagner also indicted the Jewish-dominated press of his time for promoting their co-ethnics while consigning better composers to obscurity, poverty, and heartbreaking struggles like Wagner endured in Paris in his early years.

Magee presents Wagner’s case in the most compelling terms possible and then argues that Wagner’ mistake was not to see that his argument only applied to a particular period in time, for when Wagner wrote European Jews had only been emancipated from the ghettos and from their religious traditions for a few decades. But, as Magee argues, as Jews became more integrated into European society, they became better able to carry forward the European musical tradition in an authentic manner and produce great works of their own. So, Magee concludes, Wagner’s argument was right in its time, but history has moved on, so it is no longer valid.

As an apologia, Magee’s argument is skillfully constructed and doubtless highly effective. But is it true? As I see it, the chief flaws in Magee’s argument are (1) he seeks to reduce all differences between Jews and Europeans to historical contingencies, even going so far as to attribute Jewish overrepresentation among high achievers to cultural factors rather than natural factors like higher average IQ, (2) he puts too much emphasis on religion as a defining characteristic of Jewishness, to the point that he almost seems committed to the position that a secular Jew is not a Jew at all, and (3) the only real example of a Jewish composer who fully assimilated the Western musical tradition and produced works of genuine greatness is Mahler. As far as Western music is concerned, Schoenberg was more of a decomposer.

If Jewish identity is older and more enduring than the Jewish religion, then mere secularization will not lead to Jewish assimilation. Indeed, if there is an enduring biological substratum to Jewish identity, then as long as Jews and Europeans remain distinct biological populations, there will be real cultural differences as well, including differences in music, in which case Wagner’s account of Jewishness in music has an enduringly valid core.

The best evidence that Aspects of Wagner is a highly stimulating work is that I have read it four times since I first bought it in 1997, and it has inspired a review that is about one tenth the length of the book itself. So let the next words you read about Wagner be by Magee himself.

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