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.
on 27 February 2010
This is a remarkable book. Bryan Magee is a philosophy professor who has a gift for explaining philosophy to the lay reader. He is also immensely knowledgeable of music, opera, drama, and in particular the works of Richard Wagner.
Magee explains the life and works of Wagner in terms of Wagner's political, philosophical and artistic beliefs, and provides an introduction to the key German philosophers who would play a role in Wagner's life: Feuerbach, Kant, Nietzsche and above all Schopenhauer. As Magee explains, Wagner's depth of interest in philosophy is unique amongst all the great composers. It would not be possible to write a similar book about Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bach or any the other musical greats.
First he takes us through Wagner's earlier years, essentially up to the point where Wagner broke off from composition of the Ring cycle. Magee relates his interests in politics, socialism, anarchism, greek drama, opera, and his attempts to build a comprehensive theory of art that famously led to the concept of a Gesamtkunstwerk - a "complete art work" that would unify music and drama into a single art-form in which music, words and drama are equal.
Magee then relates Wagner's mid-life crisis and discovery of Schopenhauer. The biggest surprise for me was that I expected to read about the philosophy of Schopenhauer and its influence on Wagner with a purely academic interest. Instead I found myself strongly attracted to the ideas of Schopenhauer and started to share something of Wagner's seduction by the power of those ideas. For Schopenhauer art like religion strives to understand something of the reality beyond the physical world that we see and feel. Schopenhauer regards art as above religion because it is not inhibited by the stories and beliefs that religion uses to express these deeper truths. Furthermore, Schopenhauer regards music as the greatest of the arts, because it is the most abstract art form and therefore it is the one best adapted to expressing and experiencing the spiritual dimension of life.
Schopenhauer leads Wagner to reevaluate his work and allows him to resolve the bitterness of the loss in faith in his earlier political ideals. Wagner moves beyond the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and instead elevates the role of music in his remaining works - Tristan, Meistersinger, Parsifal and the remaining parts of the Ring cycle. Magee shows how the 3 great operas Tristan, Meistersinger, and Parsifal are all deeply tied into the ideas of Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer and Wagner's political disillusionment posted a dilemma for the Ring cycle. The Ring cycle was originally meant to be the embodiment of the Gesamtkunstwerk and was also meant as socio-political allegory that would promote Wagner's socialist ideals. However, Magee shows that although on the surface the philosophy of Schopenhauer appeared to contradict Wagner's earlier beliefs, in actual fact many of these beliefs had been in Wagner's sub-conscious since a young man. Wagner was therefore able to eventually complete the Ring cycle without the need to change the earlier operas and with the ability to maintain a convincing musical and dramatic whole, nevertheless transforming the fundamental message of the work in the process:
"He may, years before, have written the libretto believing it to be an optimistic work in which a world-order based on lovelessness, power, money and chicanery was seen to be overthrown and replaced by a new order based on love, but he was now quite sure that what his artistic intuitions had rightly done instead was to produce a pessimistic work in which one loveless order was replaced by another, thus showing violence and betrayal to be perennial in the world, and any abiding rule of love unattainable; a work in which all world-orders are seen to go down to irretrievable ruin. The optimist who was the younger Wagner had composed the work up to the point where a new era of hope is expected to dawn. Now the mature Wagner, a pessimist, would compose the rest, showing how this hope is betrayed and the new era goes down in the same destruction as the old."
The final two chapters of the book are devoted to Nietzsche and anti-semitism. Of the great philosophers covered in the book, Nietzsche is unique, because he was a philosopher who greatly influenced Wagner, but instead he was himself hugely influenced by his relationship with Wagner.
Magee does not regard anti-semitism as a valid school of philosophy, but he addresses it in the final chapter, because Magee feels that Wagner's anti-semitic reputation is so damaging that it over shadows the greatness of Wagner's work.
Magee makes Wagner comes alive for me, like no other author I have read on this subject. Good writers,like him and Owen Lee want people to learn,they are born teachers.
Wagners life as a revolutionary,reminded me of what I did as a young man in the 1960's and 1970's. We were going to change the World,like Wagner.I eventually came to the conclusion, it is better to change yourself first.But I have never really given up my revolutionary Zeal.You simply become more sophisicated. One only has to look at what the Green movement has achieved. This is in reply to Magees view that the older Wagner went through change,he gave up politics and found Schopenhauer.Magee states he went through a life changing experience later in life.Change always comes or you stagnate.
Hegel-perpetual change,never ceasing,came like a bomb shell to the Germans.However,it was Feuerbach philosophy that influenced Wagner.The idea that Man creates God,or Gods in his own image,and that instead of loving God,love each other,seemed vaguely familiar to me. Religion Feuerbach thought, could show us our own deepest wisdom. Karl Mark thought these thinkers were a bunch of wimps and created a way of thought,that at the time was seen not to work.It never has.In 1850, Wagner began his Ring Libretto under the influence of Feuerbach. The poetry was written in Old German.He began with Siegfrieds Tod,which turned into Gotterdammerung,Siegfried ,Die Walkure and Rheingold. In otherwords, the libretto was written backwards.The music forwards. The fall of the old order and start of the new,via love.Wagner's major influences were Myth,Germanic,Nordic and Icelantic and a few ideas of his own to join it all together.This did cause him problems,for as Joseph Campbell points out,myth has its own hidden meaning. Donington stated that "Wagner thought myth was timeless". Campbell does say "the metaphors surrounding myth must change, otherwise the old metaphor simply has no meaning.Its Values are seen as old fashioned".Thus,modern staging of the Ring and his other works are necessary. In 1854 while in Switzerland, and having written the music to Act 3, Die Walkure, Wagner came across Schopenhauer, who was a Atheist. The world is full of suffering caused by will. We should ignore it. Then this philosopher came across Buddhism and Hinduism, and thought they think like me. Man should be like a mystic and ignore life and have their experience. Wagner now had found his man,they were made for each other.But Wagner had a a very determined will.He lived out the worst of himself and showed the best of himself in the operas.
Wagner could not rewrite his operas to fit in with Schopenhauer's thinking. He could see this philosophy in his creation,Wotan. Wotan was really Wagner,Siegfried his young revolutionary self.Just as in Act 2,Die Walkure,the showdown between Fricka and Wotan,was really Minna,his wife and Wagner.The music of Act 1,Die Walkure,was written when he was having an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck. He rewrote the ending to Gotterdammerung, with a Schopenhauerian last Brunnhilde aria,a farewell to life and the entry into timeless Nirvana. For by now he now believed in reincarnation and Buddhism,gained from Schopenhauer.He told Lizst about the Ring cycle"its all a riddle to me".So he cut out Schopenhauers aria out and replaced it with a musical theme from Sieglinde thanking Brunnhilde,for saving her in Act 3,Die Walkure. What does it all mean.? Wagner did not really grasp Indian philosophy,or if he did,he tried to change it for his operatic purposes. So Brunnhilde has reached Nirvana. But Alberich still remains,no one seems to mention him. But really, the Ring operas are about Alberichs ring. The muddle is this,does Wagner mean,we reach a new age,but that is Feuerbachian,or it is a change to Individual or collective Buddhist consciousness,and Alberich left standing,warning us, we could slip back into old thinking and the whole cycle starts again,a kind of Karma.
Wagner stopped writing music at the end of Act 2 Siegfried.Then while having an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck,whose husband had provided an house for Wagner, took up writing the Libretto for Tristan und Isolde,which is pure Schopenhauer. The great Love duet is about the night-the inner world,the day,life. The problem is they cannot go to Nirvana together, or meet there as in the Liebestod.Nor should you be having sex, if you want to reach that state of Nirvana. Joseph Campbell in the DVD,the Power of Myths,thinks it is a state you can enter,now,not after death.Most Western Philosophers do not understand it.They are too rational. For example,if I state that we are within the One,this isness,that is,that which is that,these experience cannot be put into words. You might think that is rubbish.Magee to give him his due does understand the basics of Indian philosophy.Tristan and Isolde, transformed Music and was the beginning of Modern classical music as we know it. Then Wagner thought he would write a comedy,the Meistersingers of Nurnberg. Only five hours long the opera has many layers of meaning,some of them Schopenhauerian.
At this time Wagner met Nietzsche,the philosopher,whom he could relate to,and who understood his ideas. However,Wagner influenced Wagner more then Nietzsche influenced him.After a period of time Nietzche left and became angry with Richard. After this, back to the Ring. The music has changed mainly because of Tristan und Isolde. Then Parsival,which should have been the Victors,a Buddhist opera. He used a woman in it.(See Wagner and Buddhism,Urs App) Instead she became Kundry. Wagner could not write music to portray Nirvana.That was his excuse anyway. Richard enjoyed Sex, as The Ring and Tristan shows. Tristan,Act two,is the sex act put to music. So under the influence of Cosima, Wagner then wrote a Buddhist,Christian opera,Parsival.This is a opera about a denial of sex. Richard was many things but not a Christian.Wagners excuse was it was only symbols that the people would understand,but it had a lot of Buddhist ideas.
Magee's book attacks the post deconstructionists,who state that Hitler was influenced by Wagner, because both were anti-semites. Wagner was dead before Hitler was born.Hitler gained his views on Jews in the streets of Vienna,and blamed Jews,because of the so called stab in the back,that caused Germany to lose the First world war. Also,the excuse that just because some of the characters are not refered to as Jewish,it does not mean Beckmesser and Mime are not. The audience knew they were. Beckmesser,was really Hanslick,a critic Wagner disliked. Mime,Wagner thought was him.Its all wooly thinking,giving academic studies a bad name.History, should be seen from the stand point of the era in which the people lived. Not through the prism of today,where we know what the Nazi's and Hitler did.There are people who think liking Wagner is akin to being a Holocast denyer,or a facist. These people believe the untruths that have become truth,written by those who do not know Wagner,or do not really understand his work. Artists can be difficult,but can produce beautiful work.For example, Van Gogh,Gauguin,Picasso etc. This is a great Book, very inspirational. Magees book is how philosophy should be written.He even brings his life into it to illustrate facts about Wagners life.But there was more to Wagner's Operas then what Magee mentions,but as he states,it is about philosophy.Magee brings Wagner truely alive on the pages of his book.
App,U. Richard Wagner and Buddhism 2011. University Media.
Campbell,J. The power of myth-DVD.1988.
Donington, R. Wagners Ring and his symbols 1976. Faber Paperbacks.
Lee,O. Wagner and the wonder of Art. An introduction to Die Meistersingers.2007. University of Toronto Press.
on 1 May 2004
It's hard to fault this book along musical lines. Mr. Magee has provided an engaging account of Wagner's operas and life. Additionally, he has given us an important window onto the composer's tools to creativity (which without the latter's robust personal memoirs would have been nearly impossible). The workings of Wagner's creative mind, while tantalizingly elusive, are given a plausible background here. Yet, we are still left with the greater question of how one really makes the jump from talent to genius? Certainly it is not all on account of reading Schopenhauer. As he mentions a few times throughout the book, perhaps we have never had so much background information with which to analyse an artist of such extraordinary calibre as that of Wagner. Yet, despite this treasure trove of information we are not any closer to understanding how Wagner made some of the greatest music in history. Beneath the surface of this enjoyable read there is unavoidable disappointment; the impression that Mr. Magee is trying to pull off too much. You get the nagging feeling that many of the parts could only be described as "philosophy-lite", the "take-my-word-for-it-I'm-a-philsopher" approach to critical thinking and interpretation. Seeing as how this is a book about Wagner first and about philosophy only with respect to how it relates to the creation and interpretation of the maestro's music then there is less to criticise. Still, there are many passages dealing with how we should go about experiencing Wagner's work 'properly', first "spontaneously" and then "reflectivly", etc. To be "good" all art needs to work on a sub-conscious level that goes beyond description otherwise why not just describe what it is rather than compose it or photograph it? This is the Wittgensteinian, "That about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent." Ultimately, it is Wittgenstein and not Schopenhauer that says the most (or least as it were) about what can be obtained in a book such as this one. It is clear that Mr. Magee is passionate about Wagner's music and that he is trying admirably to make up for the many years of misunderstanding between Wagner the man and Wagner the composer. He does this by applying his own talents as a philosopher and critical thinker in a largely careful rebuttal of so many of the critics who have come before him and have had less enthusiasm for the music and, more importantly, little or no philosophical training. This is an important work in so much as it sheds light on and sets the record straight about so many Wagnerian "facts"; the immence importance of the work of two philosophers to Wagner (Feuerbach and later Schopenhauer), the nature of Wagner's anti-semitism, separating the uniqueness of the music from the conflicted personality of its creator, etc. Beyond this long over due "settling of scores"(!) though, "philosophy-lite" does not a Wagnerite make.