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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Geck is acutely aware of this problem, and he does not minimize the objectionable character of Wagner’s beliefs. He writes quite candidly, “As for my own perception of Wagner’s works, I feel both fascination and horror in equal measure.” But he does not make the dark side of Wagner the dominant theme of his book, as, for example, Robert W. Gutman tended to do in his biography, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (1968). In an effort to come to terms with the tainted and poisonous aspects of Wagner’s legacy, Geck appends to each chapter a biographical vignette of a Jewish figure (or someone of Jewish descent) who played a role in the Wagner story, either during his lifetime or in his reception after death.

These sections are as far as can be from an obnoxious some-of-Wagner’s-best-friends-were-Jewish argument. In fact, in several of the vignettes, Wagner comes off looking all the worse for publicly professing anti-Semitism while exploiting the talents of artistic Jews for his own benefit. (The conductor of the premiere of Parsifal was a Jew named Hermann Levi.) What Geck does succeed in showing is that many Jews (among them, Arnold Schoenberg), while critical of Wagner’s ideology and sometimes even of his music, nevertheless chose to hold in check their understandably hostile feelings toward Wagner the man and contributed to our understanding and appreciation of his genius as an artist.

One cannot ignore the fact that an extraordinary number of the most important conductors of Wagner’s operas have been Jewish, including Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Leo Blech, Artur Bodanzky, Antal Dorati, Jascha Horenstein, Otto Klemperer, Erich Leinsdorf, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Gustav Mahler, Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, George Szell, and Bruno Walter. Surely this distinguished group of intelligent and sensitive men, several of whom suffered under the Nazi regime and/or stood up to it, could not have been deluded in their admiration of, and devotion to, Wagner’s music.

Geck’s main point in defense of Wagner’s music, as opposed to his personal ideology, is that the ideological effects of music are unpredictable. He cites a comment from the Jewish critic George Steiner: 

When the young Hitler heard Wagner’s Rienzi for the first time, he told one of his young friends that he had a vision of the National Socialist international state. Years earlier, the successful journalist Theodor Herzl had heard the same opera and afterward noted in his diary: “This evening I saw that we shall win back Jerusalem.” There is neither good nor evil in music.

No one can accuse George Steiner of being soft on Nazis. And yet even he was struck by the ability of Wagner’s music to inspire a great Zionist in his hopes for Israel. Should Herzl have been prevented from hearing Rienzi?

Geck says this of his own approach to Wagner’s operas:

My own attitude to Parsifal has changed now that I no longer hear it as music that seeks to express a particular view of the world, an interpretation I would be bound to resist in every shape and form. Now I see it as a musical psychograph, describing twisted and damaged individuals, all of whom are in search of salvation.

Geck makes an important point about what we are really listening to when we hear Wagner’s music. With the strains of the “Ride of the Valkyries” resounding in our ears, we picture men in pointy helmets and women in breastplates and are likely to think of Wagner as the great musical poet of power, the king of the Kaiser March.

But in fact, the Ring Cycle is one of the greatest indictments ever written of power politics: a portrait of its utter corruption and ultimate impotence. No composer—arguably no one but Shakespeare—has probed the inner torments of those addicted to power as profoundly as Wagner (especially in the music he associates with Wotan). No one writes more stirringly heroic music than Wagner; and yet he is at his best as a pathologist of suffering—as his most incisive critic, Nietzsche, was the first to point out. In opposition to the common image of Wagner’s grandeur, Nietzsche characterized him, in The Case of Wagner, as “our greatest miniaturist in music who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness. His wealth of colors, of half shadows, of the secrecies of dying light spoils one to such an extent that afterward almost all other musicians seem too robust.”

Geck repeatedly distinguishes between the messages Wagner may have wished to convey in his operas and the way they have actually been received. The creative geniuses who have drawn upon Wagner’s art have not necessarily been influenced by his politics. As Geck writes, “Both Debussy and Proust were fascinated by Parsifal without abandoning themselves to its ideology.” 

What is true of the aesthetic elite may also be true of the average operagoer: “In wanting to be gratified by Wagner’s gifts as a sorcerer, audiences prefer not to have their lives called into question by Wagner the moral preacher.” Whatever may have been the case at moments in the past, Geck is almost certainly right that the vast majority of Wagner’s audience today listens to his music in spite of his anti-Semitism and proto-Nazi opinions, not because of them.

In the end, Geck the musicologist keeps coming back to Wagner the musician: “And yet Wagner has a specific trump card up his sleeve—his music.” It is ultimately by his music—not his ideology—that Wagner’s achievement is to be judged. By that standard, Geck concludes at the end of his study, “there is only one Wagner.” 

A critical wag might reply, “Thank God; the world couldn’t stand a second one”—and there would be some truth to that comeback. But Wagner’s 200th birthday provides an occasion to be generous to his memory and acknowledge that, for all his faults, his reprehensible behavior, and his contemptible beliefs, he made a unique contribution to the world of music and expanded our awareness of the range of the human soul’s possibilities. Although I share Nietzsche’s contempt for Wagner’s faux Christianity, I cannot bring myself to wish for a world without the prelude to Parsifal. No music—perhaps no work of art—has ever captured so movingly a tortured soul’s agonized yearning for transcendence.

Paul A. Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently, of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV