The Magazine

Listen to Wagner

A bicentennial sense of his life and work.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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 Wagner was haunted, Geck argues, by a vision of redemption that could only be gained through destruction, culminating in the apocalyptic ending of the Ring Cycle. The final opera, Götterdämmerung, portrays the collapse of the divine order that had been painfully established in the first, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold). Siegfried and Brünnhilde, who turn to love to escape the corruption of this world, become tragically entangled in the evil web of court politics and can be purified of guilt only in their deaths, involving a funeral pyre whose flames ultimately ignite the castle Valhalla, home of the gods, thus bringing this world to an end.


Geck correctly asserts that Wagner’s tragic vision was rooted in his political experience as a failed and disillusioned revolutionary. In his youth, Wagner hoped that political action might restore humanity to a paradisiacal condition; but the abortive European revolutions of 1848 left him in despair about politics—not to mention in exile for his own revolutionary activities in Dresden. Like many artists of his day, Wagner learned to turn from politics to art as the only proper vehicle of human salvation. The central theme of the Ring Cycle is the incompatibility of love and the quest for power, and the consequent need to renounce power to achieve redemption.

Wagner may compulsively return to his own quest for romantic redemption in his operas, and he may grapple with personal demons, particularly in his dream/nightmare images of women as seductresses (notably in the figures of Venus in Tannhäuser and Kundry in Parsifal). But as Geck reminds us, for Wagner, the personal is the political. For all his narcissism and self-absorption as a human being, Wagner as an artist was a representative man of the 19th century. Precisely by drawing upon his personal obsessions, he created perhaps the most characteristic works of 19th-century art—operas that captured the spirit of the age and engaged with its deepest moral, political, and spiritual dilemmas.

Geck succeeds in conveying a sense of the big picture in Wagner’s operas; but in the course of his larger narrative, he also illuminates many individual topics. His discussion of Die Meister-singer contains an intriguing analysis of the way Wagner uses a variety of musical techniques, including Bach-like counterpoint, to give the score an archaic texture suited to his portrayal of the medieval world of German song. Geck is excellent on Wagner as the inheritor of Beethoven and, hence, the creator of a new kind of symphonic development in opera, with the orchestra becoming central to the action, not just acting as an accompaniment to the singing, as in conventional opera.

Geck offers several insightful analyses of principal characters, such as Wotan in Die Walküre, Hagen in Götterdämmerung, and Kundry in Parsifal. He demonstrates how Wagner creates psychological depth principally through the complexity of the music he associates with each character. Geck also refers to a variety of productions of individual operas. He is aware of the ways in which a clever producer can sometimes bring out hitherto-unnoticed aspects of an opera, but he is also not afraid to sound old-fashioned and quarrel with contemporary producers who are intent on imposing their personal vision on Wagner’s works by ignoring or contradicting his obvious staging intentions.

My admiration of Wagner: A Life in Music obviously rests on my underlying admiration of Wagner’s operas. But what of the common objection that, because of Wagner’s noxious opinions and beliefs, we should not even listen to his music, let alone applaud it? Richard Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite and, although it would be anachronistic to call him a Nazi, he did entertain the kinds of racist and nationalist theories that went on to provide the foundation of Hitler’s ideology. It certainly has not helped Wagner’s reputation that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a great admirer of his operas and identified with his heroes, particularly Walther von Stolzing. Clouding matters even further, Wagner’s family linked up with the Nazis in the 1930s and allowed his operas to become a centerpiece of cultural propaganda under the Hitler regime. 

Given all these facts, I can understand why some people, including many Jews, refuse to listen to Wagner’s music, and why performing it in public has been unofficially banned in Israel.