Reflections on Richard Wagner's 200th birthday: beautiful music without a future

A couple of days ago, I was driving and had the radio on and heard Richard Wagner’s prelude to act 1 of his opera “Die Meistersinger”, and was transported into the lush musical world that is so uniquely Wagner: seductive orchestral colors, chromatic harmony, melodic motifs, fine storytelling, stirring climaxes, and in this particular musical excerpt, ironic yet clever use of counterpoint. I had to pull over for a while to finish listening to the prelude and fully enjoy the guilty rush of emotional excitement in this fun but over-the-top piece. Why the guilt?


The controversial music composer Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago. In keeping with the media’s love of arbitrarily nice round numbers and anniversaries, there’s a lot of commentary about celebrations of his birthdays or reasons not to celebrate. Here are just a few articles that came up during a Web search:

None of this commentary actually addresses my mixed feelings about Wagner.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism?

Much of the commentary touches upon Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Adolf Hitler’s use of Wagner in Germany for Nazi purposes. I will not be discussing these (important) issues because others already do, and because I tend toward the view that people are imperfect and I would like to be able to assess their important and good work even if they could be judged as unpleasant or downright evil.

Love the music, hate the man?

However, I also do not agree with the sentiment of “Let’s learn to love the music, yet still hate the man”. I don’t think there is a total separation between Wagner’s music and everything else about him. In Wagner’s case, in particular, he specifically designed his music around a certain philosophy about the world, about art. And that is what I really find interesting and unsettling, somewhat along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of his one-time friend, “The Case of Wagner” and “Nietzsche contra Wagner”

Music and philosophy

Wagner’s philosophizing about the nature of and purpose of music embraced the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art”, that would unify all the arts, hence his development of his form of opera, the “music drama”, whose purpose was to unify music, poetry, theater in a grand and serious spectacle to inspire the audience. He proposed the Zukunftsmusik, or “music of the future”.


In Wagner’s day in the late 19th century, there was fierce rivalry among the German Romantics on the direction of musical evolution. Roughly, there was the camp of Johannes Brahms (whose birthday I celebrated a few weeks ago, considered “conservative”, and the camp of Wagner, which considered itself “modern”. Aspects of this “war” seem quaint and exaggerated now, and Brahms has been re-evaluated in recent decades, and the big tent of Western art music has historically learned from both camps’ methods and sensibilities, but Wagner, at least, took very seriously his own self-importance and self-promotion as an artist/philosopher.

An interesting question to me is, what is Wagner’s relationship to modernism, both in the musical sense and in the more general sense, typically applied to the late 19th century and early 20th century trends in literature, art, architecture, and society that are still relevant today?


The harmonic and other innovations of Tristan und Isolde in 1865 (it is arguable that Franz Liszt was the real innovator first) can be considered the beginning of modernism in music (in the sense of dissolution of Western tonality). Check out this performance of the beginning of the prelude to act 1 along with a score annotated with harmonic analysis:

Here’s my favorite full performance of the prelude as well as the final sung Liebestod, by the great Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting and Kirsted Flagstad singing. It truly blew my mind when I first discovered and heard this music while in college.

Who claims modernism?

But the modernist Second Viennese School under Arnold Schönberg liked to claim Brahms as one of their own, and in even more revisionism recently, there have been attempts to situate Wagner as the inspiration for modernism in the larger sense.

(A few of my notes about Schönberg here. Also, it is too large a topic for now, but I plan to write more later about modernism and postmodernism and post-postmodernism in music, in the context of today’s music and in my own experience of music, whether listening or performing.)

Wagner’s legacy

I believe Wagner failed, that his philosophy was a dead end, and that his music was a dead end.

This despite the fact that, of course, he changed the course of Western musical history, both by provoking the modernist backlash against his theatricalism and chromaticism, while paving the way for, say, Mahler and Bruckner.

I have enjoyed and continue to occasionally listen again to marvelous music by Wagner, but not in the way he intended. I have never attended a performance of one of his operas. I have only seen (on TV or video) or listened to bits of his operas that are sung (rather than purely instrumental excerpts). Two decades ago, I did try to watch the mammoth Ring cycle broadcast on TV by the Metropolitan Opera over four long evenings, but my attention span allowed me to only drift in and out of consciousness periodically during that attempt.

Perhaps most damning of all is that shortly after that TV experience, I rather enjoyed listening to Lorin Maazel’s album, “The Ring Without Words”, basically showing that for me, Wagner totally failed as a philosopher, because I like his music best without the “poetry” (his lyrics, which he wrote himself, don’t make much sense to me) and without the on-stage drama.

Even then, I cannot listen to his music much without feeling unclean. There is a sense in which I cannot separate his music from his philosophy and his wider artistic and cultural aims. Even if he had not been an anti-Semite, there should be controversy over him and his legacy. There is a sense in which I agree with some of the old-fashioned concerns about his music: “Wagner as mental health menace?”. In Nietzsche’s words, Wagner and his music are decadent.

(Update of 2014-07-13)

RIP, Lorin Maazel.

Music is powerful

But it’s pretty delicious decadence. Last month a friend splurged on going to the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the Ring, and I decided to indulge in listening to Siegfried’s funeral march in Götterdämmerung. As usual, the experience left me in tears. Wagner, master psychologist, master manipulator of emotions, master composer, weaving the leitmotifs, summing up the whole tragic story of the Ring:

And for sheer hypnotism, listen to Furtwängler again, with the prelude to act 1 of Lohengrin. Close your eyes, turn out the lights, and listen. Beautiful.

More hypnosis: prelude to act 1 of Parsifal. I’ve chosen an old Furtwängler performance again:

Back to Die Meistersinger

Finally, to end where I started, with the prelude to act 1 of Die Meistersinger that I happened to enjoy on the radio, here is Furtwängler again, conducting a performance of it live. Warning: this is a video of a live performance in 1942 in Germany with swastikas in the background, so you may not wish to view this.

Yes, this video is totally creepy, but I thought it would be appropriate to close on this jarring note. Die Meistersinger was, after all, Wagner’s telling of a story to glorify old Germany, and was a favorite opera of the Nazis.

(And the subject of Furtwängler, a conductor I have many mixed feelings about, will have to wait for another blog post as well.)


I cannot help but admire and be affected by Wagner’s music, but at the same time feel that his entire philosophy and aim was bankrupt. I’ve touched on only a little bit of how I have come to feel this, since the larger issues go beyond Wagner, but I don’t yet have complete thoughts and rationales to offer at this time. As with the towering figure of Beethoven, his musical and cultural legacy is still controversial.


I decided I wanted to end more positively. My favorite piece of Wagner’s is one that was actually always intended to be purely instrumental and is self-contained, not just an excerpt: the Siegfried Idyll. Oh wait, again we all subvert his intention anyway, because he composed it for his wife Cosima’s birthday (what a beautiful present to wake up to in the morning) and only ever intended it to be performed privately!

Furtwängler again:

(Update of 2014-07-11)

I just saw yet another article about Wagner and anti-Semitism. The topic never goes anyway, and I don’t think it should. That said, I don’t personally have anything to add to the discussion, but offer the link if you feel you need to engage further.

(Update of 2015-01-14)

I saw yet another (and excellent) article “Wagner and the Jews”.

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