The bulk of this splendid book deals with the relationship between Wagner and Schopenhauer; but that is preceded by a discussion of the influence of Feuerbach's philosophy on the composer; and it concludes with a fascinating chapter on Wagner's influence on Nietzsche.
In his youth Richard Wagner was a left wing radical and, at the age of 35, had played an active part in the Dresden uprising in 1849. The brand of left wing philosophy he espoused was Anarchism: the theory of Bakunin and of Proudhon was that all government, being based on force, is corrupt. For his part in the revolution, he had to flee to Switzerland, and while there, he read another left wing philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach also condemned relationships based on power: they should instead be based on Love. One of Wagner's earliest operas, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836) had already extolled love which burst through the bounds of the conventional institutions that tried to trammel it: in his later operas, Wagner proclaims that love should recognize no barriers, not of adultery nor even of incest.
In Switzerland Wagner began work on The Ring cycle. Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas, had an almost overtly political message: the lust for power has destroyed the natural order of things and is destructive of love. This was the view of many anarchists whose objective was to liberate society by political means from all kinds of external control.
But by the time he had finished Rheingold, he had undergone a momentous conversion. To begin with, he had become disillusioned with politics. The 1848 revolutions had failed, and Louis Napoleon's authoritarian coup in 1851 made Wagner despair that the world could be improved by political action. It was while he was in the deepest depression that, in 1854, he discovered the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer had a bleak and pessimistic view of the world. We are dominated by an impersonal Will which relentlessly drives us to struggle against the sufferings of the world and which fills us with restless and unattainable longings. For Schopenhauer the Will was a terrible affliction. He thought that there were a few remedies: one of these was to lose oneself in art (and in music as the highest of the arts) and so escape from the sufferings in the phenomenal world (the world of appearances) into the ethereal realm of the noumenal world.
Wagner had already expressed this longing for nothingness in The Flying Dutchman (1841); and he had already preached the redemptive power of music. He had then come to the conclusion that society was actually irredeemable, and this had plunged him into his profound depression. Now Schopenhauer showed him that redemption was possible for individuals even if it was not possible for society. Wagner had intuitively used the motif of renunciation in The Flying Dutchman, in Tannhäuser (1845) and in Lohengrin (1848). He now found his intuition articulated in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. He even found that the shape of the entire libretto for the Ring (which had been conceived as early as 1850 although the music for the end of the cycle had yet to be composed) had intuitively moved from the quasi-political nature of Rheingold to the metaphysical message of the Götterdämmerung. From 1854 until his death Wagner steeped himself in Schopenhauer; and Magee traces the way in which the composer quite specifically and deliberately introduced one Schopenhauerian idea after another into his libretti and into the music which was conceived with more intensely philosophical meaning than any music had ever been before - a process culminating in Tristan and Isolde (1860).
Schopenhauer had seen Compassion as another way of escaping the fetters of the ruthless Will that operates in the noumenal world. It is this idea which is one theme in Wagner's last opera, Parsifal (1881). Because of the Christian symbols that figure in this work, it has often been taken to be a Christian work. Magee argues powerfully against this: Wagner was no more a committed Christian when he composed Parsifal than he had been a committed pagan when he put the Germanic gods on the stage in the Ring.
Nietzsche claimed that Wagner had "sold out" to Christianity in the libretto of Parsifal; and Magee's last chapter before the appendix deals with the influence that Wagner had on Nietzsche. Nietzsche had begun as a devotee of both Wagner and Schopenhauer. Later, pace Magee, he had an obsessive need to become independent and to escape from Wagner's influence. He broke violently with Wagner (and with Schopenhauer also), and launched a series of tirades against Wagner's outlook, each of which Magee parries with vigorous refutation. Magee accounts for the breach almost entirely in terms of Nietzsche's psychology, though he readily admits that Nietzsche's philosophy was itself of towering importance and influence. I think Magee's refutations of Nietzsche's charges are valid, although one is struck throughout the book by the superlatives which Magee constantly showers on Wagner's thought and work. And one of Nietzsche's specific charges against Wagner - that Wagner's antisemitism was vulgar and despicable - is not mentioned in this chapter at all.
However, that topic is dealt with in an Appendix, partly because Magee does not regard antisemitism as a philosophy and therefore not part of the subject of the book. Like any right-thinking person, he finds Wagner's antisemitism totally repellent. But even if it were a philosophy, however, Magee argues that there is no justification for seeing antisemitism playing any role in the operas, although many productions of the operas, during the Nazi period especially, portrayed them as such, and many post-war writers have insisted that Wagner as an antisemite did mean to endow figures like Mime and Beckmesser with the stereotyped hateful Jewish characteristics. In any case, Magee concludes, Wagner's genius as an artist is no more compromised by his antisemitism than is the genius of Dostoevsky by his. And to the genius of Wagner this book is splendid tribute.