Monday, 27 July 2020

Wagner and Young Germany

(Article, ‘Young Germany’, originally published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

A group of German writers during the pre-1848 period. Reacted strongly against perceived apolitical and reactionary tendencies in German Romanticism. Several, including Heinrich Laube, Karl Gutzkow, Heinrich Heine, and Georg Herwegh, were known personally to Wagner; others include Ludwig Börne, Theodor Mundt, Ludolf Wienbarg, and Georg Büchner. In 1835, the German Confederation proscribed many such writings as injurious to the Christian religion and morality; Laube’s subsequent imprisonment made a great impression upon Wagner. According to Heine (Die romantische Schule), Young Germans, unlike Goethe and the Romantics, treated life and literature as one; as for Wagner, this signaled revival of the Hellenic spirit following Christian aberration. Wagner published articles in Laube’s Leipzig-based Zeitung für die elegante Welt, including his Autobiographical Sketch (1842), where Wagner likens Das Liebesverbot to Laube’s Young Europe in their “victory of free sensualism over puritanical hypocrisy.” Young German influence may be traced throughout Wagner’s dramatic oeuvre, especially Tannhäuser.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Wagner and Bakunin

(Article, ‘Bakunin’, first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Photograph by Nadar

Bakunin, Mikhail, (b. Priamukhino, Russia, 30 May [Old Style: 18 May] 1814; d. Berne, 1 July 1876), Russian anarchist. A nobleman’s heir, Bakunin resigned his army commission to study philosophy in Moscow. Part of the “Stankevich Circle,” he translated Fichte and Hegel and fell under Alexander Herzen’s influence. There followed from 1840 an itinerant revolutionary existence. In Berlin, he shared an apartment with Ivan Turgenev, joined the Young Hegelian party, and penned The Reaction in Germany (1842). In Zurich, he travelled with Georg Herwegh, meeting Wilhelm Weitling and other “German communists.” In Paris, he met fellow anarchist and later friend, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and his eventual nemesis, Karl Marx. Sympathy for the Polish cause distinguished him from many Russians and Germans, and got him expelled from Paris. In 1848, he attended the First Slav Congress in Prague and made his Appeal to the Slavs, demanding continental revolutionary unity to overthrow Russian, Austrian, and Prussian autocracy.

Following Wagner’s 1849 Palm Sunday performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bakunin approached the conductor, announcing: “if all music were to be lost in the coming world conflagration, we should risk our own lives to preserve this symphony” (Wagner, My Life, English translation 384). Wagner writes a little of their ensuing discussions, generally of a political nature, Bakunin rejoicing in his “creative passion” for destruction (Bakunin 58). Had Wagner not yet heard of Marx, he most likely would have done so during these walks. Upon Bakunin’s next return from revolutionary Prague, he threw himself into the Dresden uprising, despite disapproving of its amateurism. He proposed centralizing gunpowder reserves in the Rathaus to blow up approaching Prussian troops.

Captured and arrested in Chemnitz with other revolutionaries, including August Röckel but not Wagner, Bakunin received commuted death sentences in Saxony and Austria, before extradition to Russia, where he was held in solitary confinement in St Petersburg’s Peter-Paul Fortress from 1851 to 1857. Released into Siberian exile, he escaped via Japan to San Francisco, whence he resumed his itinerant activities, through London, Lithuania, Stockholm, Switzerland, Lyons, Bologna, etc. Disdaining participation in the corruption of “bourgeois” political life, his anarchistic conflict with Marx’s “scientific socialism” intensified, culminating in expulsion from the First International in 1872. In the wake of this and the Franco-Prussian War (1871), Bakunin wrote Statism and Anarchy, perhaps the most complete statement of his beliefs.

Though as coherent a tract as we have from Bakunin, arguably more powerful were: his insistence upon revolutionary activity; his twin passions for destruction (cf. Götterdämmerung’s Immolation Scene) and revolutionary fraternity; and his provision of memorable dicta, e.g., inverting Voltaire to say that, if God existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him (Bakunin 128). Bakunin’s charisma impressed Wagner greatly; references persist in Cosima’s Diaries. During his final year, 1876, Bakunin seems, in startlingly later-Wagnerian fashion, to have lost some of the Rousseauvian faith he had held since childhood in man’s natural goodness, remarking from Lugano: “If there were in the whole world three people, two of them would unite to oppress the third” (Carr 478). As rehearsals for the first Bayreuth festival began, Bakunin – on his deathbed – requested the works of Schopenhauer.

Arthur Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, tr. Steven Cox and Olive Stevens (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973).
E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (London: Macmillan, 1937).

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Wagner and Constantin Frantz

(This article appeared originally in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi)

Frantz, (Gustav Adolph) Constantin (b. Börnecke, 12 Sep. 1817; d. Blasewitz, 2 May 1891), historian and political theorist. Prussian civil servant, from 1862 a full-time writer. Initially Hegelian, Schelling’s influence turned him rightward. Like many contemporaries, Frantz addressed the “German question:” how to reconcile cultural nationhood with German Kleinstaaterei (petty-statism). This he described, with typical national modesty, as the most obscure, most involved, and most comprehensive problem in all of modern history. Note the German conflation between national and universal, also present in Wagner’s and others’ writings.

Critical of liberal, instrumentalist conceptions of state and monarchy, which he viewed in natural, organic terms, Frantz opposed both the National Liberals (associated with Jewish hegemony) and Bismarck’s kleindeutsch policy, meaning unification as a Prusso-German nation state, excluding Austria. Instead, Frantz advocated particularism within a pacifistic confederation to include Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Austria and Prussia would act from within rather than as would-be great powers. This federal model for Europe as a whole would defend against French and Russian expansionism, and protect traditional Western Christendom. Latterly claimed as a forerunner of the European ideal, Frantz was Romantically nostalgic for the Holy Roman Empire: not a state, but a set of legal institutions, through which sovereign entities, ranging from electorates to Imperial knights, might thrive, as much culturally as politically. It was Germany’s particular privilege and calling, Frantz believed, to form a living connection between state and international law in the development of continental Europe. German unification (1871), he believed, ignored German historical development, transplanting foreign constitutional forms in the name of a national principle.

Frantz may have influenced a surprisingly rare expression of blatant nationalism in Wagner’s dramatic oeuvre: Hans Sachs’s peroration in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Even if the Empire fell to a French (welsch) threat, Sachs exclaims, “holy German art” would endure. Wagner had encountered Frantz’s work during the 1860s, dedicating the second edition of Opera and Drama to him and proposing to Ludwig II in 1866 that he assume leadership of the German Confederation. Cosima records: “R. says, ‘Who suffered more than I did under the drawbacks of life in Germany? Indeed, I even got to the stage of wishing to see the whole nation dissolved, but always in the hope of building something new, something more in line with the German spirit. It was a great joy to me to get a glimpse through Constantin Frantz of the German Empire; and who cannot feel at least some hope, now that the Germans have shown such strength?’” (CWD, 14 Feb. 1871). When Wagner’s initial enthusiasm for Bismarck’s Reich faltered, this almost metaphysical Reich remained an alternative.

In 1878, Wagner republished “What is German? requesting Frantz’s response. Frantz’s Open Letter to Richard Wagner (June 1878) also published in the Bayreuther Blätter, argued that the new Reich was as un-German as could be. Importantly, he distinguishes between (German) “metapolitics” and conventional politics (analogously with metaphysics and physics). Metapolitics must have a higher aim than mere political ends, a privileging characteristic in the idealism of the later Bayreuth Circle.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Wagner and Revolution

(Article, ‘Revolution’, was originally published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi and Mark Berry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Revolution was a constant specter for nineteenth-century Europeans, both a recurring, self-transforming event and a Grundbegriff: a “fundamental concept,” (Reinhart Koselleck), an inescapable piece of socio-political vocabulary crystallized in a single term. Others relevant to Wagner include “state,” “morality,” and “politics.” They require narration and interpretation, not analytical definition.

Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath

David, The Death of Marat

The French Revolution (1789) cast a shadow over the nineteenth century and posed a series of questions. Could feudal or aristocratic forms of government and society be maintained, reinvigorated even, with newfound popular conservative support? Were attempts to start anew doomed to bloody failure? Who should rule and how should government be structured? What of national sovereignty? The restorative model of revolution as a “wheel’s turning” was replaced by modern revolution as violent rupture, transforming society, its omnipresence both new and persistent throughout Wagner’s lifetime.

Indications were contradictory. The old order, apparently restored at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), often had its much-vaunted “principle of legitimacy” breached: e.g., the Holy Roman Empire not revived, two fifths of Wagner’s native Saxon territory ceded to Prussia. However, newer ideals of Liberalism and constitutionalism also encountered inveterate hostility, epitomized by Austrian Chancellor Metternich and his European “System.” France’s 1830 July Revolution commenced another wave, replacing ultra-legitimist Charles X with “citizen-king,” Louis-Philippe. Constitutions were granted in Saxony, Baden, and elsewhere.

Delacroix, Liberty Guiding the People

The seventeen-year old Wagner, hitherto repelled by tales of French Revolutionary excess, drew inspiration from news of Paris and Dresden: the “world of history came alive for me … naturally, I became a fervent partisan of the revolution” (My Life, English tr., 39). Increased and increasing public interest in social and political affairs characterized the period, “revolution” and reaction very much alive (Young Germany). Few were surprised – Metternich wearily confessed to propping up rotten buildings – when revolution engulfed Europe in 1848-9, Wagner’s experience culminating in the Dresden uprising.

Barricades in Dresden, 1849

Wagner’s writings now breathed “Revolution,” afforded a capital letter even when he abandoned the practice for other nouns. Die Revolution (1849), written for August Röckel’s Volksblätter, hymns the “sublime goddess Revolution,” the “ever-rejuvenating mother of mankind,” who prophesies a new world of love (Feuerbach’s influence), in which “all as brothers” would be “free in their desires, free in their deeds, free in their pleasures” (SSD 12: 245, 251). Die Kunst und die Revolution and other Zurich writings look to a post-revolutionary “artwork of the future”: essentially Der Ring des Nibelungen.

However, the promise of revolution suggested by the Ring never materializes. Though Siegfried the anarchist love-revolutionary shatters Wotan’s spear of state, he falls victim to Hagen’s spear. Yet, long after many ’48ers lost faith, Wagner maintained his. Even after turning to Schopenhauer, he continued to glorify revolution, above all in Siegfried’s Funeral March that dramatizes the conflict between revolution and resignation: challenging, not denying, revolutionary hopes. Wagner’s chronicle never returns to the older meaning of revolution. The ring is circular; the Ring is not. Indeed, the need to transform a moribund society is pursued in Wagner’s final stage work, Parsifal.

Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2006)
Dieter Borchmeyer, Die Götter tanzen Cancan: Richard Wagners Liebesrevolten (Heidelberg: Manutius, 1992)

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Wagner and Feuerbach

(Article, ‘Feuerbach’, first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Engraving from 1872, Die Gartenlaube

Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas (b. Landshut, 28 July 1804; d. Rechenberg [near Nuremberg], 13 Sep. 1872) Philosopher, attended Berlin lectures by Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Feuerbach lectured at Erlangen but failed to obtain a university position, an ambition rendered impossible following revelation of his authorship of the atheistic Thoughts on Death and Immortality (published anonymously, 1830); he relied upon income from his wife’s factory. A key member of the “Young Hegelian” school, Feuerbach inspired many 1848 radicals, whilst remaining personally aloof from revolution. Following the factory’s bankruptcy, Feuerbach’s later years were spent in relative poverty. Having read Marx’s Capital, he joined the Social Democratic Party in 1870.

Feuerbach’s interests remained founded upon the theology of his youth. Unmasking the “secret” – a typical Young Hegelian conceit – of religion as inversion, he proceeded to anthropological criticism of philosophy, understood as abstraction from theology, itself abstracted religion. Man had transferred all his greatest qualities to an imagined, transcendental being, God. Humanity was impoverished; love, the essence of religion, was perverted, even denied. Love must therefore be brought back down to earth, as Wagner attempted in the Ring, most clearly in Siegmund’s rejection of Valhalla, of immortality as promised by Brünnhilde, and subsequently, her Siegmund/love-inspired rebellion against Wotan. She loses divinity but gains humanity.

Feuerbach had become, for Wagner, “the proponent of the ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority” (My Life, English tr., 430). The title of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft echoed its dedicatee’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Like many of his generation, Wagner not only followed Feuerbach’s critique of religion, but extended it to political and economic life. Alberich transforms value-free Rhinegold into possessed – in more than one sense – capital, a classic case of Feuerbachian inversion. What should be loved, enjoyed, and possessed though not owned by all, enslaves the Nibelungs as if it were divine. Likewise, Wotan enjoys not only religious but political power through the fortress of Valhalla. Principles that were, at least for a time, potentially good, have come to rule over mere mortals. Those principles, sapped of life just like the World-Ash tree, have hardened into law. Wotan and Alberich battle for possession of a ring whose imagined power rules the world. As Wagner explained to August Röckel, “the essence of change is the essence of reality, whereas only the imaginary is changelessly unending,” (Letter of 25/26 January 1854). Liberation “from the bondage of [such] conceptions” was the task of the Dresden uprising and its dramatic counterparts: Volsung revolution and Brünnhilde’s elevation to the “purely human.” Such sentiments remained part of Wagner’s conception until completion of the Ring and indeed of Parsifal too, neither supplanted by nor vanquishing newer, metaphysical concerns.

To take one example, that sympathy for fellow human beings (Schopenhauer’s Mitleid), which Brünnhilde exhibits in her benedictory Immolation Scene, is prefigured in Feuerbach’s “species being.” Consciousness of fellow suffering or indeed joy is what distinguishes man from beast, and what must once again be ascribed to man rather than God. Brünnhilde’s example is intended for the “watchers” – as well as us – who might therefore heed Wagner’s Feuerbachian words of 1849: “We see that man is utterly incapable in himself to attain his destiny, that in himself he has not the strength to germinate the living seed distinguishing him from the beast. Yet, that strength, missing in man, we find, in overflowing abundance, in the totality of men. … Whereas the spirit of the isolated man remains eternally buried in deepest night, it is awakened in the combination of men,” (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 12:242). Wagner’s dialectic between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer harks back to their common Romantic roots in Schleiermacher’s theology of love, creating something dramatically new.

Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006)
Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, tr. Manfred Vogel (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1986).
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1989).

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Wagner and Hegel

(Article, 'Hegel,' first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Jakob Schlesinger: Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel, 1831

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (b. Stuttgart, 27 Aug. 1770; d. Berlin, 14 Nov. 1831, Berlin) Philosopher, studied alongside Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling at Tübingen, taught at Jena, Nuremberg, and Heidelberg. In 1818, he succeeded Fichte as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, his lectures attracting students from across Europe. Schopenhauer scheduled clashing Berlin lectures, an empty hall awaiting. A conflict embodied in Wagner’s oeuvre had already been dramatized.

zoomAs Aristotle stands to Plato, Hegel does to Kant. Hegel’s philosophy restored dynamism to neo-Aristotelian ontology (philosophy of being), long encumbered by scholastic encrustation. At the heart of Hegel’s system lies the dialectical method, owing something to Fichte and instantiated in Phenomenology of Spirit. As Hegel worked on it in Jena in 1806, Napoleon entered the city, the Consul-Emperor a model for Hegel’s “world-historical” individual, unconscious vehicle of Spirit itself. Whereas mathematics depend upon the principle of non-contradiction, Hegel’s ontology proclaims that contradiction exists, thereby going beyond Kant. Hegel’s dialectic places conflict between subject and object at the heart of being, expressed in history – revelation in time of God/Spirit – through alienation of mind. The vulgar Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis has nothing to do with Hegel’s philosophy, which posits objects growing through necessary self-negation into their full potentiality. Contradiction lies within; it is not applied from without. That radical dialectical method, rather than his accommodationist “positive philosophy” – though one should distinguish Hegel’s ideal, rational state from its empirical counterpart – proved Hegel’s greatest legacy to radical successors: first “Young” or “Left” Hegelians such as David Friedrich Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and Max Stirner; thereafter, figures such as Wagner, Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, and beyond. Others, for instance, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, revolted, yet always consciously.

Wagner’s acquaintance with Hegel(-ianism) may be categorized as follows: (i) what we know he read; (ii) what he may have read; (iii) what he learned second-hand: from Bakunin, Georg Herwegh, et al., general intellectual milieu; (iv) internal evidence from dramas and writings such as Oper und Drama, themselves a significant contribution to Hegelian aesthetics. From the mid-1850s, following Schopenhauer, Wagner tended to disparage Hegel, minimizing his influence. Yet Wagner’s works, Parsifal and the late “regeneration writings” included, speak differently: Hegel, Schopenhauer, and other intellectual currents coexist, modify, transform, even do battle, no one “side” claiming victory.

Hegel’s Philosophy of History was the sole work of modern philosophy in Wagner’s Dresden library – though we know that he read others, including Hegel’s Phenomenology. The latter’s identification of transformations in consciousness with historical eras is replicated in Wagner’s prose writings, especially those written in Zurich exile, for instance in Wagner’s typology of Greek state and tragedy, Christian negation and subjectivity (cloister replacing amphitheatre), and modern imperative to reconciliation (the artwork of the future). Hegelian contradiction forms the material of Wotan’s Walküre monologue – better, dialectical self-dialogue. Negation of Wotan’s original political intent, a monarchical state under rule of law, is revealed as implicit in that state’s founding, yet revelation may only, in Hegelian spirit, come historically, contradictions having became apparent. “The owl of Minerva only takes flight at the onset of dusk,” that Dämmerung prophetic of Götterdämmerung itself (“die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug,” Hegel, 7:28). Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is proclaimed with thoroughgoing anarchism: “Lord through contracts, now am I enslaved to those contracts” (Walküre Act II, scene 2).

Hegel was unwilling to negate the principle incarnate in the Rechtstaat (legal state); Leftist successors, Wagner and Bakunin amongst them, prepared to forge and to wield swords of anarchism. Wagner’s world-historical individual, Siegfried, re-forger of Notung and rebel without a consciousness, serves both as celebration and critique not only of the revolutions of 1848-9, but of the Hegelianism in which Wagner conceived his chronicle. Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene interpretative wisdom, voiced as ravens take flight, dawns only at twilight: hers, the Ring’s, societal. We cannot predict what that final scene’s “watchers” will (re-)build, yet one day, it will be understood in light of what they saw on the Rhine, Minerva’s owl once again spreading its wings.
The conflict between individual and totality inherent in Hegel’s system – or, as Marx argued, inherent in its engendering bourgeois capitalism – is, consciously or otherwise, dramatized in verbal and musical terms in Wagner’s dramas. Dynamic material resists and yet is molded by demands of the whole: a prelude to subsequent analytical controversies, which might fruitfully be probed for socio-political and philosophical meaning – and vice versa.

Mark Berry, “Is it here that Time becomes Space? Hegel, Schopenhauer, History, and Grace in Parsifal,” The Wagner Journal 3.3 (2009): 29-59.
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Grundlinen der Philosophie des Rechts, in: Werke, 20 vols, eds. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969-72).

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Wagner: Über Staat und Religion

(Article, ‘Über Staat und Religion,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))


Ludwig II, 1861
Ludwig II, 1864
Written July 1864 in Munich, this essay was intended as a private response to questioning from a “highly loved young friend,” Ludwig II (SSD  8:3). Ludwig wished to know whether and how Wagner’s views on state and religion had changed since his writings of the period 1849-51, meaning the early years of his Zurich exile following the Dresden uprising. First published in 1873, the essay was not entirely unknown before then; Nietzsche read the manuscript in 1869 during a hike outside Tribschen.


The strategy resembles that of the contemporary Mein Leben. Not least on account of the works’ common – royal – addressee, Wagner presents himself as a revolutionary primarily for the sake of (his) art. Such an attitude would eventually also characterize the Bayreuth Circle; some may even have believed that. Nevertheless, the strong relationship between politics and aesthetics endures. Wagner claims political interest to be a reflection and product of artistic concerns; ensuing discussion of his aesthetics immediately renders the relationship dialectical, just as when he had tilted the scales towards politics earlier. Moreover, Wagner does not disavow but revisits and sometimes reiterates certain key socialist themes from Dresden and Zurich, for instance abolition of the state and overcoming the constrictions of modern labor. He distances himself from a form of “newer socialist” distribution to which he had never subscribed in the first place (SSD 8:5). The word is killed that the spirit might live.


Schopenhauer is the principal agent of intellectual as opposed to circumstantial transformation, though the distinction is not always clear. The blind striving of Schopenhauer’s Will paints humanity less optimistically: egoistic individualism requires societal stability (Stabilität), which individuals have for their own protection invested in the state. Schopenhauer’s Wahn (illusion) bids individual hopes express themselves in patriotism, embodied in the monarch. (This need not entail a nation-state; Bavarian particularism would be just as well served here.) Monarchical independence furthers a number of related purposes, including restraint of the base commercial imperatives of the press – Wagner would soon be in need of that – and inspiration to redeem life by rising above it. Monarchy appears a political and metaphysical necessity. No revolution – Wagner cannot quite bring himself to use the word – has ever failed to result in restoration of that ideal representation of the state.


In a new twist upon his idea of republican monarchy as adumbrated in the 1849 speech to the Dresden Vaterlandsverein, the king, as self-sacrificing “saint” – in the vein of Schopenhauerian renunciation – dispenses “grace” (Gnade), rising above any particular interest, his own or others’. State power is mitigated and ultimately negated by two higher, ascending forms of Wahn: religion (avowedly not theology: Feuerbach’s distinction still holds) and art. Art’s superiority over religion as announced in the opening of Religion und Kunst – no one believes art must be “true” – is foreshadowed. Reading between the lines, artistic patronage would seem a good practical example of how Wahn might be harnessed, Hans Sachs-like, to public good as well as princely salvation. Ludwig’s response seems to have been of that ilk.


Friday, 10 July 2020

Wagner and Politics

(Article, ‘Politics,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))

Aristotle’s contention that man is by nature a political animal (ζον πολιτικόν) might have been formulated with Wagner in mind (Aristotle I.1253a2). Whatever he claimed on occasion, for instance when seeking amnesty for his revolutionary deeds, or writing Mein Leben for Ludwig II, Wagner’s life and oeuvre were intimately and often explicitly concerned with political questions. “Questions” is the moot word, for, whilst Wagner rarely hesitated to proffer answers, he ultimately found them wanting. Political involvement arose from artistic need and vice versa, art and politics being inextricably related in Wagner’s conception. Inspired by Attic tragedy, Wagnerian musical drama was necessary political: communal celebration and perhaps incitement. Wagner also treated with political ideas in essays, correspondence, and the dramas themselves.

1.                Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism

2.               The Ring

3.               The Ring: Political order

4.               The Ring: Heroic challenges

5.               After Wagner


1.               Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism

Marx, 1839

Wagner was a contemporary of Marx (b. 1818) in more than a chronological sense. They shared influences, not least the philosophy of Friedrich Schiller, G.F.W. Hegel, and Young Hegelians such as Ludwig Feuerbach; they shared friends and acquaintances, such as Mikhail Bakunin and Georg Herwegh; they denounced many of the same social ills, not least nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism. Both, moreover, were master dramatists; even Capital is as much psychopathological history as work of economic analysis. The differences between Marx and Wagner are, however, equally telling. That Marx would have dismissed Wagner’s work largely as “ideology” does not mean that we should do so, yet there lies therein much of that “true socialism” Marx and Engels excoriated in favor of their “scientific” variety. Wagner’s politics concern themselves with some issues of lesser importance to Marx, for instance despoliation of the natural world (“green politics,” one might say) and a pre-Nietzschean conception of the will to power (Liebesgelüste, see letter from Wagner to Uhlig, 11/12 Nov. 1851).


For Wagner, standing firmly in the tradition of German idealism, the Athenian polis had embodied harmony between individual and society, private and public. Tragic enactment represented the supreme manifestation of harmony – in every sense. The problem of modern political life, both for Wagner and idealism, was how to reconcile the apparently idyllic communal integration of Hellenic life with post-Classical, Christian subjectivity (individual souls: the Lutheran priesthood of all believers). Art, as life in general, fragmented following the political decline of Athens. A higher unity – Wagner aimed not at a restoration of tragedy but at its renewal – entailed wholesale transformation of the public realm: individuality would flourish, but not empty, mercenary individualism as abetted by modern civilization. Socialization of art and aestheticization of society would be one and the same. As for Schiller and the German Romantics, art was the paradigm of free, productive activity – or would be when liberated from forcible division of labor. For the divorce of “opera” from “drama” was as much a dehumanized and dehumanizing consequence as factory wage-slavery: revolution would overcome both.


French socialism – “utopian” according to the typology inherited from Marx and Engels – played an important role here too, not least via August Röckel, though Wagner also read much for himself, returning to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon after the Dresden uprising. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalls having questioned Röckel in Dresden about his “new moral order of things,” founded upon “the annihilation of the power of capital by direct productive labor.” Where, asked Wagner, would the “free spirits, let alone artists,” be found, “if everyone were to be swallowed up into the one working class”? Röckel replied, “that if everybody participated in the work at hand according to his powers and capacities, work would cease to be a burden, and would become an occupation which would eventually assume an entirely artistic character, just as it had already been proven that a field worked laboriously by a single peasant with the plough was infinitely less productive than when cultivated by several persons according to a horticultural system.” This utopian socialism stood closer to Marx than one might think, for division of labor is to be transformed into something voluntarist rather than merely abandoned in Romantic reaction. Wagner thus “took pleasure in developing conceptions of a possible form of human society which would correspond wholly, and indeed solely, to my highest artistic ideals” (My Life, English translation, 373-4). The “Zurich reform writings” – Die Kunst und die Revolution, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, and Oper und Drama  do just that.


2.               The Ring


One might say that Wagner’s politics are expressed most clearly, or rather most probingly, in Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is true and misleading: there is no single doctrine to be expressed, but a continual, questioning process of development. Dramatic form, radicalizing rather than resolving – there are harmonic implications here too – arguably proved better suited than essay-writing to such development, at least for Wagner, though we should never reduce the dramas to tracts.


There nevertheless remains much political truth in Wagner’s encouragement to Liszt, “Mark well my new poem – it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!” (Wagner to Liszt, 11 Feb. 1853). At the heart of the Ring’s action lie the foundation of modern state and society, and their dissolution, the latter seeming increasingly uncertain following the apparent failure of revolution in 1848-9, yet never abandoned. Even in the 1880s, Wagner would record, recalling his earlier, highly political Jesus von Nazareth: “Jesus could foresee nothing but the end; we no less. Materially and empirically composed, we await the destructive forces which, even, for the Roman world, did not fail to appear” (Brown Book, English translation, 201). Annihilation remains political as well as metaphysical, the Christian dialectic between cyclical (Greek) and linear (Jewish), at least as understood by Wagner, Schopenhauer, and many other German idealists, re-imagined, just as in Parsifal.


3.               The Ring: Political order


Bakunin, 1843

In Wotan’s winning the Ring’s “world,” the necessity of its end (Götterdämmerung) is already clear. The Norns recall him fashioning his spear, political instrument of domination, from the World-ash tree: Nature raped in founding the artificial state. In 1849, Wagner noted, under the heading, “On the Principle of Communism,” that, historically, such arbitrary (willkürlich) deeds of possession, on the part of a people or an individual, were invariably justified by religious, mythical, or otherwise spruced-up contracts (SSD 12:254). When we hear of Wotan’s subsequent actions, we understand them as inevitable consequences of that original political sin against Nature (and humanity). His spear shattered in combat by Siegfried’s sword of (would-be) revolution, Wotan has commanded his tamed heroes to fell the withered boughs of the World-ash. “The ash fell; the spring ran dry eternal!” (Götterdämmerung, Prelude). Domination achieved, disaster has ensued, not least for Wotan himself, now surrounded by the ash-tree logs, awaiting their final all-consuming blaze: further wanton natural despoliation. The state, as Bakunin insisted, “is not a direct product of Nature; it does not, like society, precede the awakening of thought in man.” Instead, it “dominates society and tends to absorb it altogether” (Bakunin, Selected Writings, 137-8).


Wotan, however, is no mere gangster. We sense the religious aura and majesty of Valhalla: the ideological defenses of the gods’ stronghold should not be underestimated, especially as it emerges in Wotan’s musical dream. Wotan’s vision is not, moreover, of “might is right.” He restrains Donner from resolving the problem of the giants as in the Prose Edda: “Stop, you savage! Nothing through force! My spear protects contracts: spare your hammer’s power” (Rheingold, Scene 2). Such is a remnant of the originally creative urge that led him to inscribe contracts upon his spear; the problem with laws is that as soon as they are rendered unalterable, human creativity is stifled. They are transformed into their opposite; they entrap, as Wotan laments in his Walküre monologue. Conflict between love and the Law is a constant refrain in Wagner’s plans for Jesus von Nazareth. Indeed, Wagner portrays Jesus, who proclaims that his death will also bring about that of the Law, as an heir to Proudhon and Bakunin (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen 11:290). Law has, in a classical case of Feuerbachian inversion, acquired divine power over the men whose original creation it was, as Valhalla (or Heaven) has in religious terms. The temporary and imaginary have become feared and obeyed as eternal and super-real. And yet, as we read in the 1848 prose sketch (“Die Nibelungen-Mythus. Als Entwurf zu einen Drama”), though the purpose of the gods’ “higher world order is moral consciousness … they are tainted by the very injustice they hunt down.” From the oppressed “depths of Nibelheim consciousness of their guilt echoes threateningly” (SSD 2:157). Wagner originally intended that the oppressed Nibelungs be liberated by revolution; experience taught him the struggle would be harder.


Arthur Rackham: Alberich
and the subjugated Nibelungs

In Nibelheim lies a more modern – at least to Wagner – instantiation of domination, and a threat to the gods’ relatively enlightened variety. For, as Marx observed, though Wagner might readily have done, “the relationship of industry and, in particular, the world of wealth to the political world is a principal problem of modern times” (Marx, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie”). Both extended Feuerbach’s critique of religious alienation, this time into the realm of capital. Alberich’s parallel rape of Nature – there are two creation myths in the Ring cosmos – is theft of the Rhine gold. Value-free in its natural state, Alberich transforms it into capital in the Nibelung hoard, and would-be totalitarian power in the ring, with which he enslaves his kinsmen and would vanquish ancien régime Valhalla. He may not accomplish that himself, yet his bourgeois challenge, born of his lowly place endured in its feudal order, hastens its destruction.


4.              The Ring: Heroic challenges


Subsequent challenges issue from Siegmund and Siegfried, both standing in Wagner’s line of charismatic revolutionary heroes from Rienzi (indeed from the hero of the Faust Overture) to Parsifal. Enthusiasm for the figure of Siegfried was widespread amongst Vormärz radicals, including the young Engels, for whom nineteenth-century “heroic deeds” (Heldentaten) might be endeavored by “sons of Siegfried” (see his essay, “Siegfrieds Heimat”). Brünnhilde, we might note, sends Siegfried out into the world: “to new deeds, dear hero” (Götterdämmerung, Prelude)


If our opening quotation might have been made for Wagner, so, in the Volsung context, might Aristotle’s subsequent words: “And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer [Iliad, Book IX] denounces – the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts” (Aristotle I.1253a2-6). Siegmund and Siegfried both appear out of nowhere, or rather out of the Teutonic forest, suggesting a world in which Franco-Roman rules (laws) do not apply – that is, a stateless place of anarchy. Wagner does not consider them “bad men”; foes such as Hunding and Fricka do. In Wagner’s attempt, confounded by state power, to have them transcend or at least transform existing society, they echo Aristotle’s “above humanity” – and prefigure Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Both heroes stand opposed to “tribe” and “law,” and are, in the face of society and its institutions, “lovers of war.” Such was Wotan’s intention, having turned against his own laws and attempted to free himself from the merciless dialectic of power-politics. “Hearthless” the Volsung heroes are too, whereas Hunding – his second line, “Holy is my hearth” – prides himself upon his outwardly respectable, internally repressive (bourgeois-equivalent) household (Walküre, Act I).

Siegmund’s rescue of Sieglinde from Hunding’s domination therefore represents dramatic progress; it is blessed with heroic progeny. By contrast, Brünnhilde’s wish that Siegfried settle down attempts (again) to render permanent what should be temporary. Marriage, symbolized with cruelest irony by possession of Alberich’s ring of power, would pervert and destroy their love through intervention of law and property. Her need to constrain Siegfried thus helps initiate, in alliance with Gibichung state corruption, the tragedy of Götterdämmerung, the undoing of all concerned. Nothing could be further from the truth than George Bernard Shaw’s claim that in Götterdämmerung, Wagner relinquished his political vision; his politics, however, stood far from Shaw’s Fabian variety.


Instead, there persisted a vision of free love inspired by Young German and Young Hegelian “sensualism,” and by French socialists such as Charles Fourier and the Saint-Simonians – despite Wagner’s Schopenhauerian recognition of love itself as a form of power. Fourier lamented: “Our legislators want to subordinate the social system to … the Family,” which he contrasted with “groups” of honor, friendship, and love, and “which God has almost entirely excluded from influence in Social Harmony, because it is a group of forced or material bonds, not a free, passionate gathering, dissoluble at will…. Since all constraint engenders falsehood … both civilized and patriarchal society, where this group is the dominant one, are the most duplicitous” (Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements). It is no coincidence that conventional marriages in Wagner are duplicitous – and barren. Siegfried, if unconsciously, destroys the bonds of law and state as much through his betrayal of Brünnhilde as his defiance of Wotan.


5.               After Wagner


Wagner was not the first to treat with political ideas in his musical dramas, yet those coming after tended to take their leave from him. That might lie in rejection, for example, Igor Stravinsky and even Richard Strauss, in his marriage of Wagnerian musico-dramatic construction to decidedly Nietzschean aestheticism, or in continuation. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu dealt explicitly with socio-political concerns, likewise Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, an exemplar regarding difficulties and opportunities provided by the Wagnerian-modernist tradition. Schoenberg contrasts Moses, at loss for words, and therefore lacking power, with Aron, whose dangerous political power lies in bel canto ease of communication and its catastrophic consequences. If Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill reckoned themselves resolutely anti-Wagnerian, they could hardly have done so without him; there remained, in any case, more than a little residue. Post-war “engaged” composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono were compelled to confront Wagner’s legacy: in Henze’s case almost equally through inescapable homage and angry confrontation.

Wagner’s dramas have also stood at the forefront of political Regietheater. There are specific historical reasons for this, not least a post-war Adornian desire to “salvage” them from their fraught relationship to German history, but content and political purpose have proved equally important. If Wieland Wagner’s “New Bayreuth” understandably downplayed the taint of politics – itself a political act – then directors such as Joachim Herz, Ruth Berghaus, Patrice Chéreau, and Stefan Herheim have continued, in Wagnerian tradition, to question the dramas, to venture out to “new deeds.” Man remains a ζον πολιτικόν.

Aristotle, The Politics, tr. Jonathan Barnes, ed. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988).

Mikhail Bakunin, “State and Society,” Selected writings, tr. Steven Cox (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973).

Udo Bermbach, Der Wahn des Gesamtkunstwerks: Richard Wagners politisch-ästhetisch Utopie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004).

Mark Berry, “Is it here that Time becomes Space? Hegel, Schopenhauer, History, and Grace in Parsifal,” The Wagner Journal 3.3 (2009): 29-59.

Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Rochester, NY: Ashgate, 2006).

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998).