Commentary Magazine

Greatness & Decline of Richard Wagner

Exactly one-half century ago Thomas Mann stepped to a podium at the University of Munich, and there delivered an address on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner. The next morning Mann left Germany for exile.

Mann’s lecture on that celebratory occasion was the now famous “Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner.” Since its initial delivery, which was almost immediately followed by repetition in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, it has become firmly established as the brightest jewel in the Mann non-fiction canon. It appeared in April 1933 in the prestigious Neue Rundschau; it was published in German, alongside essays on Goethe and Don Quixote, in his 1935 Leiden und Grösse der Meister (“Sufferings and Greatness of the Masters”); in English translation, it has become a central part of both the hardback Essays of Three Decades and the softcover Essays.

Like all milestones in the writing of cultural history, Mann’s creation was Janus-faced. It looked backward to an epoch of Wagner’s hegemony, and it also looked forward to a future in which the workings of the Zeitgeist, at once aesthetic and political, would destroy that hegemony forever.

It is not difficult to justify the use of the word hegemony here. The first performances of the Ring in Bayreuth in 1876 and of Parsifal in 1882 were world events in a way that we today can scarcely comprehend. For royalty no less than for musicians, for millionaires as for intellectuals, Bayreuth was (mutatis mutandis, like Woodstock) the central manifestation of an entire cultural epoch. The most talented composers and musicians of Europe were happy to sit at the Master’s feet; among their number was even to be found Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt. To such a young aspirant as Gustav Mahler, a visit to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal just five months after Wagner’s death in 1883 was an event of life-consecrating magnitude: “When I came out of the Festspielhaus, completely spellbound,” he said, “I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that 1 would carry it with me unspoiled all my life.”

Wagner had been wreaking similar carnage on the French. Baudelaire’s declaration of loyalty even before the Paris Tannhäuser of 1861 was to be renewed by many subsequent enthusiasts—despite the humiliation suffered by the French (so welcomed by Wagner himself) in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Mallarmé was a worshipper at the shrine; the very name of a publication which had little to do with music but everything to do with symbolist aesthetics, the Revue wagnérienne (1885-88), showed in the plainest way the commanding position of Wagner in cultural life.

As for French musicians, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, and Chabrier were supporters. Saint-Saëns even managed to range himself on the side of the Wagnerians without giving up his Gallic objectivity: “La Wagneromanie est un ridicule excusable; la Wagnerophobie est une maladie” (“Wagnermania is an excusable absurdity; Wagnerphobia is a disease”). And according to a fellow composer, Vincent d’Indy, when Chabrier heard the first note of Tristan at Bayreuth, he began sobbing: “The person sitting next to him turned round to inquire whether he was feeling well, and our good Chabrier replied between two sobs: ‘I know it’s stupid, but I can’t help it. . . . I’ve been waiting for ten years of my life for that A on the ‘cellos. . . .’”

But Wagner’s power in the last two decades of the 19th century transcended art—even an expanded definition of art. He had already played an important role during the 1860′s in the politics of King Ludwig’s Bavaria. He wrote voluminously—and was read widely—on subjects ranging from Germanness to Jewry, from the proper understanding of women to the proper treatment of animals. Wagner Societies were springing up all over Europe, started originally to help pay for Bayreuth; for their members the sacred texts were rather more Wagner’s ideas than his musical notes.

Wagner had been a major influence on the young Nietzsche; this brilliant but unstable philosopher had written in eminently Wagnerian accents (in The Birth of Tragedy) of the “renovation and purification of the German spirit through the fire magic of music.” For Wagner, of course, Nietzsche was a boy angel who soon fell. After they broke, his place in the pantheon of Wagnerian thinkers was to be taken, only a few years after the composer’s death, by the more assiduous and dutiful Houston Stewart Chamberlain. That this sincerely German thinker was actually English only demonstrates the true scope of Wagner’s cultural influence.

As we know from the recent study by Geoffrey Field,1 Chamberlain (no relative of the famous Neville) was a convert before he had seen a single Wagner opera. When he finally did see one—Rheingold in the 1878 Munich Ring premiere—Chamberlain struck the proper note of transport (“truly an ocean in which man may blissfully immerse himself to gain learning”). And whatever reserve Chamberlain may initially have maintained on the seductive doctrines of Wagner vanished for good when he saw Parsifal—six times—in its first performances at Bayreuth:

Hitherto, my life had been so artistically barren, but now I had reached the font of the purest Art. Schiller speaks of an “aesthetic culture which should combine the dignity and bliss of humanity”: I have discovered the place of this culture.

Had Chamberlain done no more than live the rest of his life—he was to die in 1927—as a combination of fan and publicist, he would merely have been another melancholy example of a weak mind meeting its master. But Chamberlain’s magnum opus, the infamous Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1889), with its echoes of Wagner’s equally infamous pamphlet of 1850, Das Judentum in der Musik (“The Jews in Music”), became the principal inspiration of the anti-Semitic cultural doctrines of Nazism as expounded by Alfred Rosenberg.



At the same time as Wagner was a major political force, his literary influence remained strong. For example, there was Thomas Mann’s use in short stories of Tristan and Die Walküre to suggest doomed and illicit passion. But Mann did more than appropriate the story lines and characteristic sounds of Wagner’s operas; he actually used Wagner’s Leitmotiv technique to achieve unity of tone and style over the long stretches of his great novels.

Marcel Proust too knew and felt his Wagner. It is difficult not to see a similarity between the remarkable use of the madeleine at the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past as the key to the narrator’s world, and the famous E-flat-major chord at the opening of Rheingold as the very stuff out of which the world is made. And for Proust, as for so many other artists, Tristan was central (“And as the friend then examines a photograph which enables him to fix the likeness, so over Vinteuil’s Sonata, I set up on the music-rack the score of Tristan, a selection which was being given that afternoon, as it happened, at the Lamoureux concert”).

Meanwhile, of course, Wagner’s sway continued to have its base among musicians. Certainly we would never have had Strauss’s Salome (1904-05) and Elektra (1906-08)—not to mention the earlier tone poems Death and Transfiguration (1889) and A Hero’s Life (1898)—without Wagner; indeed, Strauss could be called, to emphasize his descent from Wagner, “Richard the Second.” Yet the compositional career even of such an avowed anti-Wagnerian as Claude Debussy is inconceivable without Wagner, not just as something to react against but even more as a model.

In this respect it is instructive to examine what may be considered Debussy’s masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902). Reserved, restrained, implicit rather than explicit, making its points by elision and ellipsis rather than iterative demonstration, Debussy’s opera self-consciously opposed itself in every way to the Wagnerian afflatus. But in running away from the cosmic tub-thumping of the Ring, Debussy only seemed to fall into the emotional stasis of Parsifal. As the English composer Robin Holloway has so convincingly shown,2 the frequent parallels between Pelléas and Parsifal could only have been produced by Debussy’s total immersion in the Wagnerian ethos, an immersion so complete, it would seem, as to explain and even demand its denial by Debussy.

While Debussy’s debt to Wagner may still strike some as surprising, the same can hardly be said of the relation of the Second Viennese School—in particular Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg—to the master of Bayreuth. Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht (1899) is Wagner’s Tristan with the words absorbed into the music. The Gurrelieder (1900-11) is also an unabashed Wagnerian epic in harmony, mood, ambition, and, one must also add, sentimentality.

Berg too nailed his colors to the Wagnerian mast, in his case by quoting Tristan in the Largodeso lato of the Lyric Suite (1926), his first large work to make use of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone procedure. But what, after all, was twelve-tone music in its inception but a codification, with diabolically strict rules, of the beginning of the Tristan Prelude, the very same music which, as we have already seen, reduced Chabrier to sobs?



As with all fructifying movements in art, Wagnerism showed its strength not just by the fervor and creativity of its adherents, but also by the distinction and enmity of its opponents. Like the adherents, the opponents came both from within and without music itself. Thus, in one of the great intellectual bestsellers of the 1890′s, Degeneration, Max Nordau wrote:

Richard Wagner is in himself alone charged with a greater abundance of degeneration than all the degenerates with whom we have hitherto become acquainted. The stigmata of this morbid condition are united in him in the most complete and most luxuriant development. He displays in the general constitution of his mind the persecution mania, megalomania, and mysticism; in his instincts vague philanthropy, anarchism, a craving for revolt and contradiction; in his writings all the signs of graphomania, namely, incoherence, fugitive ideation, and a tendency to idiotic punning, and, as the groundwork of his being, the characteristic emotionalism of a color at once erotic and religiously enthusiastic.

Nor was Wagner universally accepted as a musician. Even during the composer’s lifetime, Eduard Hanslick had made much of his reputation as a major critic by setting the Viennese favorite Brahms against Wagner. By the 1920′s, the very up-to-date Stravinsky, still fresh from his scandalous triumph in 1913 with The Rite of Spring, felt free to leer at the sainted Wagner. In 1924, for example, a Belgian interviewer quoted Stravinsky as saying:

Wagner . . . is certainly not a real musician. He has had recourse to the theater at every moment in his career, and this remains an obstacle to his musical ideas, whose progress is hindered by his philosophy. Every time Wagner was tempted by pure music, he was hit on the nose. . . .

Indeed, the course of musical composition during the period after World War I was not determined by just one school. To the leadership of Schoenberg was counter-posed the school not just of Stravinsky but also of the French les Six. Darius Milhaud, one of the leaders of this group, was particularly anti-Wagner in his critical writings as well as in his iconoclastic music:

When the Concerts Pasdeloup announced yet another Wagner Festival, I headed my article simply: “Down with Wagner!” which provoked a veritable scandal. I received protesting letters, insults, and even anonymous letters. Wagner was worshiped like the golden calf. And I hated his music with every day that passed, for it represented a type of art that I detested. . . .3

But such controversy, of course, is the very stuff of which artistic viability is made. If proof be needed of the vital and commanding presence of Wagner’s works in the 1920′s, it can be found in the high and flourishing condition of the performances he received in this period. To mention such singers as Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann, Frida Leider, and Friedrich Schorr, and such conductors as Karl Muck, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter, is to evoke a golden age of which the phonograph remains today a poignant, if incomplete, witness.



Perhaps the stage is now set for Thomas Mann’s historic intervention on Wagner. Despite the massive political currents then swirling about Germany, Mann’s presentation was ostensibly not about current politics at all; it was rather about Wagner’s achievement and how it seemed to a German and European writer fifty years after the composer’s death.

From the outset, Mann is at pains to separate Wagner from his political admirers of the Hitler period. He begins by linking the composer indissolubly to a past, and for some, a despised epoch—the 19th century “whose complete expression he is.” Here is the hidden agenda of Mann’s position: Wagner belongs to someone else than the Germans of 1933.

Accordingly, Mann stresses Wagner’s parallels in 19th-century Europe: French Impressionism in painting, the English and French novel in literature. He finds a kinship in “spirit, aims, and methods” between Wagner and Zola. He notes in Wagner and Tolstoy a “common possession of social and ethical elements.” He remarks on a likeness between Wagner and Ibsen, both “social-revolutionary in youth, in age paling into the ritual and the mythical.”

If, for Mann, Wagner rises so high above all his operatic predecessors, it is because of his use of psychology and myth. Psychology, for Mann in 1933 as for us today, means the (Jewish) Freud—and Mann is quick to point out how Wagner’s stress on physical love has “an unmistakable psychoanalytical character.” And even in Wagner’s use of myth, though Mann does not go so far as to mention it, is another link to Freud. For is not Siegfried’s cruel treatment of his (grand)father Wotan in Act III of the opera Siegfried neatly explained along the lines of the Oedipus complex?

Mann, however, has little use for Wagner as an aesthetic philosopher: “What left me cold was—Wagner’s theory. It is hard for me to believe that anyone ever took it seriously.” Having rejected Wagner’s view that a synthesis of all the arts (exemplified in his own operas) is superior to the component arts standing by themselves, Mann then casts doubt on Wagner’s attitude toward these individual arts. He says Wagner was uninterested in the Italian plastic and graphic arts; though he revered poetry, his own was “not really written verse but, as it were, exhalations from the music. . . . in the nature of directions for a theatrical performance.”

Even as a musician, Wagner is to Mann an incomplete creator. He sees the “ever-craving chromatics” of Isolde’s so-called Liebestod as a “literary idea”; the opening of Rheingold with its famous 136-measure E-fiat-major triad Mann calls an “acoustic idea.” So curiously reserved is Mann toward Wagner even as a composer that it hardly seems a compliment when Mann calls him “a musician who can persuade even the unmusical to be musical.”

Mann continues his attack on Wagner as a universal genius. Wagner, for some the very idea of the world seer, is for Mann only a special case of the artist, who “is not an absolutely serious man . . . effects and enjoyment are his stock-in-trade.” In fact, says Mann, “Wagner’s art is dilettantism, monumentalized and lifted into the sphere of genius by intelligence and his enormous will power.”

Though Wagner is not for Mann a bourgeois—that loathsome creature hated by both far Right and far Left—he still has “the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie, the atmosphere of his century about him, as has Schopenhauer, the capitalist philosopher: the moral pessimism, the mood of decline set to music.” As if tarring Wagner with the bourgeois brush were not enough in itself, Mann goes on to accuse him of carrying bourgeois taste to the point of degeneracy. At first he exculpates Wagner from the charge that in order to work he needed the stimulus of creature comforts; had not, Mann wonders, the noble Schiller needed even questionable stimuli in order to create? But Schiller was different: “In all Schiller’s work there is no trace of the odor of decay which stimulated his brain, but who would deny that there is a suggestion of satin dressing gowns in Wagner’s art?”

Moreover, Wagner is really more of a socialist—a dangerous charge indeed in the Germany of 1933—than a patriot, for, after all, there is no real folk music in Wagner, not even in Die Meistersinger. Indeed, Mann characterizes Wagner’s Germanism as cosmopolitan at heart. And before he ends by discussing the true relevance of Wagner’s work, Mann cannot resist one final dig at Wagner the Nazi hero: “. . . this bold musical pioneer, who in Tristan stands with one foot already upon atonal ground—today he would probably be called a cultural Bolshevist!”

What then is Wagner’s true relevance? Simply, “Let us be content to reverence Wagner’s works as a mighty and manifold phenomenon of German and Western culture, which will always act as the profoundest stimulus to art and knowledge.”

Here, truly, we have witnessed Mann at his most subtle and complex. In the course of some 25,000 words he manages the not inconsiderable feat of being a totally committed Wagnerite while at the same time leaving not a stone of Wagner’s reputation unturned.



To be sure, the great enemy of Wagner’s reputation was not Mann but Hitler; Wagner’s reign was ended not in the libraries and bookstores but on the battlefield. This having been said, it still would seem that Mann’s intellectual labor of detaching Wagner from his reputation as a prophet and seer, and representing him as a “mere” artist, is the turning point in our perception of this master. For if the first fifty years after Wagner’s death marked the summit of his aesthetic and socio-political centrality, the next fifty have marked Wagner’s admission into the category of accepted—and safe—classics.

Not surprisingly, this full acceptance waited on the conclusion of World War II. As late as 1943, Virgil Thomson questioned Wagner’s status on the highest level of musical masters. According to Thomson: “Unless there is unanimous acceptance of a man’s work, which is rare, it is the people who don’t like it that have the last word in its evaluation.” In this category of the un-unanimously accepted, Thomson puts Wagner, along with other composers from Berlioz and Gluck to Milhaud and Copland. All these artists have detractors and thus, despite their fans, they continue to be special tastes in a way that marks them off from the universally approved Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Co.

But even in 1943 Thomson was on weak ground in refusing to allow Wagner into the musical pantheon. For the remarkable aspect of Wagner’s fate during World War II—at least in America—was that he continued, despite the hatred of things German, to be performed. His operas remained staples at the Metropolitan in particular and in symphony concerts in general; new careers—like that of the great St. Louis dramatic soprano Helen Traubel—continued to be made in this music.

Once the war was over in 1945, all barriers to Wagner were quickly lifted. The pent-up demand for great music performed by authentic European artists exploded both in concerts and on recordings. Austria and Germany once again became places of musical pilgrimage. Chief among these holy spots was Bayreuth, where in 1951, still under the control of the Wagner family, his operas once again played to ecstatic audiences from all over the world.

No longer, however, were these works seen as being the particular property of a people, nation, party, or even philosophical and aesthetic school. In the eyes of Wagner’s grandchildren, Wieland and Wolfgang, the operas were ecumenical, part of the common inheritance of mankind. Toward this end the Ring—surely the most influential production of the 1951 season—was presented as a non-specific myth, owing much to cultural anthropology and Jungian psychology, but nothing to any special race or culture. Much too was later accomplished for the wider acceptance of Wagner by the simple expedient of turning almost all the stage lights out, thereby rendering both the music’s action and its ideas open to any interpretation the spectators wished to supply.

As to these interpretations, in general there have been two schools of thought since the war as to what Wagner means. Roughly put, they have been the Marxist-economic and the psychoanalytic.



The economic interpretation of Wagner has found its happiest employment in the Ring. Building on Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), producers have used the story of the theft of the gold, and the subsequent attempts of various gods and monsters to control the destiny of the world through possession of the gold, as an allegory of capitalism in victory and defeat. On the stage this approach reached its apogee in the 1976 centennial production by Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth. Here, in a stage conception which is finally being vouchsafed to the American public on PBS this season, one can find capitalists, factories, machines, and Wall Street. One can also see an extraordinary melange of styles and costumes, from baroque to mercantile. Sometimes the dominant atmosphere seems not that of a political allegory but of an artists’ ball gone haywire.

Off the operatic stage, the economic approach to Wagner has been rather more inventive, if hardly as clear. Pride of place in this regard must be given to the work of Theodor Adorno, the renaissance man of socio-Marxist criticism. It is not easy to summarize someone whose unclarities extend to both factual statements and logical connections. But the following quotation gives the flavor of Adorno’s point of view. For him, Wagner’s operas

provide eloquent evidence of the earlier phase of bourgeois decadence. . . . Wagner is not only the willing prophet and diligent lackey of imperialism and late-bourgeois terrorism. He also possesses the neurotic’s ability to contemplate his own decadence and to transcend it in an image that can withstand that all-consuming gaze.

The psychoanalytic interpretation of Wagner, sub-species Jung, has been classically formulated by Robert Donington in his Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols (1963). On this view, the Ring is not about capitalism but about creation, birth and rebirth, the self, ritual marriage, destiny, and redemption.

It may appear churlish to pass summary judgment on such intelligent—and even overintelligent—attempts at explanation. Yet while past efforts in this line, ranging from the fevered reactions of Cha-brier and the French to the poisonous politics of Chamberlain, have at least seemed to begin in an authentic response to Wagner’s operas themselves, these more recent approaches strike one as artificial. For they seem to proceed from the author’s own world view to the material provided by Wagner, instead of the other way around.

There is one crucial piece of evidence for this harsh verdict. Whatever the actual content of Wagner is now seen to be, his work is everywhere beloved and cherished. Not only does this mood of good feeling extend to the composer’s work; it even seems to inform the relationships among contending schools of interpretation. Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of Wagnerian exegesis abound. Where everyone’s right, no one’s right. Or should it really be vice versa?



And so, in this spirit, we have arrived at the hundredth anniversary of Richard Wagner’s death. The continuing flood of publications in both German and English is astounding. Picture books, learned studies of the composer’s sketches, numerous new biographies cautiously and minutely going over the same material, all the detailed projects born of musico-literary minds—all these deserve mention, if only for their sublime pointlessness.

But what remains the simplest and most important point about Wagner today is just how badly he is being performed. The worldwide shortage of competent Wagnerian singers is public knowledge; in the case of male singers above the range of bass, the word shortage must be replaced by drought. The lack of conductors capable of bringing broad culture, sensitive musicality, and the requisite technical competence to this music is an open secret, only concealed from unsophisticated listeners by the sloth of music critics.

Last season, for example, America’s greatest opera house was only capable of doing two operas, Rheingold and Siegfried, out of the four of the Ring. The Met must have known how poor the performances would be, for they were scheduled for the fall, well out of range of radio broadcast. But these performances were not just poor; they were embarrassing. Weak singing, lackluster conducting, shaky orchestral playing: the only question was why all this had been put on the stage in the first place.

Other Wagner operas fared almost as badly at the Met. Tannhäuser seemed to this listener unredeemed even by the signs Leonie Rysanek displayed of sympathy for the role of Elisabeth; once again the tenor lead was pitiable. Parsifal, although well received in the press, nevertheless provoked one critic to wonder whether the plush atmosphere of the Metropolitan Opera House was really congenial to this work.

We can, of course, always look to Bayreuth. Not only do we have its 1976 Chéreau production of the Ring to see on PBS; in addition, the musical segment of this production, conducted by Pierre Boulez, is separately available on Philips Records. Glossily packaged in a red, white, and black tote box, the records are accompanied by an equally glossy booklet carrying a long essay by Boulez. This essay, at once intelligent and revealing, may fairly be taken as Boulez’s testament on Wagner, a full description of why an avant-garde and deeply French musician has chosen to spend a decade and more in the closest association with what might have been thought an uncongenial métier.

Boulez begins with the assumption that Wagner’s stage works can be separated from the historical currents which accompanied their birth. It is music, not history, which Boulez finds at the heart of the Ring:

. . . it is the music which is in fact entrusted with the structure of these mythological persons; it is the music which lends articulation to characters, gestures, and actions. The dramatic myth becomes effective by means of, through, and within the musical structure.

Wagner’s themes, furthermore, “lead a life independent of the dramatic action”; finally “the musical structure becomes so rich and proliferous that it unites, indeed literally absorbs the stage characters. . . .”

Precisely because Boulez properly puts so much weight on Wagner’s music, it comes as a particular disappointment to find on his records of the Ring so little of musical distinction. To begin with the vocal roles: other conductors than Boulez have a high opinion of Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde which seems impervious to her poor singing. A vocally pale Wotan, a callow Siegmund, an overextended Sieglinde, a barking Siegfried, shrieking Valkyries: it all makes one rather regret that opera must, alas, be sung.

But opera—especially opera of this musical greatness—can survive a good deal of bad singing. The poorer the singers, the better must be the conductor. Unhappy as one is to say this about a musician as intellectual and direct as Boulez, he conclusively demonstrates in these records that what seemed in 1976 (when he first led the Ring at Bayreuth) an absence of personal expression in the music is in fact a lack of any deeply rooted conception of how the music ought to go.

This is most obvious in the paucity, across the whole expanse of the four operas, of firmly held and firmly integrated tempos. It is well known that Wagner himself preached (not just for his own works) a doctrine of tempo flexibility, and indeed such flexibility is necessary for any idiomatic performance of his music. But Boulez carries this cautionary principle rather further:

Wagner’s motives, if they are presented at first in a definite tempo, at a definite speed, are never, or at least very seldom, bound to this specific tempo or speed. . . . It is just there that the novelty of his motives is to be found: not only are they not tied to any particular tempo, but they are also unattached to any preceding formal hierarchy.

The baleful results of this extended doctrine are everywhere on the Boulez records. The orchestra isn’t together within itself; chords lack a discernible attack; and the articulation of basic rhythmic motives—as in the difficult dotted rhythm of the “Ride of the Valkyries”—is often indistinct where it is not actually incorrect. Time and again the singers and conductor are not together, and at important points of cadential arrival Boulez is so consistently ahead that the singers are reduced to a kind of involuntary parlando.

These faults are at their worst in the great set pieces of the Ring, the famous “bleeding chunks” which still figure in orchestral concerts. The closing scene of Rheingold, with its troubled hymn of Wotan to the as yet unlived-in Valhalla; Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, girt by flame to wait for Siegfried, at the end of Walküre; the Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet at the end of Siegfried; the great stretch of music running from Siegfried’s funeral march through Brünnhilde’s immolation, which closes Götterdämmerung: all these, in Boulez’s performance, fail to be either moving or memorable.



Here, then, is the paradox. Everywhere there is worship of Wagner: publications personal, commemorative, and scholarly; recordings, television programs for the masses, all the panoply of contemporary musical sainthood. Ideological friends and enemies meet in admiration of his greatness; musicians from ultramodern to hidebound conservative vie to play his music. That classic status which so long eluded him is now his. At last, a century after his death, Wagner has finally come home to musical heaven.

Would he have thought the fruits of his elevation worth the battle? Would Richard Wagner, so fanatically desirous of being central to life on earth, have been satisfied with a permanent residence in the world everlasting? I haven’t his answer, but I have my own, though perhaps it is the answer to a different question. With Wagner’s canonization, we mark the final laying to rest of the 19th century in music, of the heroic age of music as we know it today. The best sign that we have done this is that even Wagner is no longer controversial.

And yet, like the glance of Freia which gleams through the Nibelung treasure and requires Wotan to give up the ring itself in order to cover it up, Wagner, in at least one spot on this earth, is still controversial. In the state of Israel there still are people who care about Wagner; indeed, they care so much that they won’t let his music be played. Because for the Israelis, Wagner the man, Wagner the anti-Semite, is still alive, they take him seriously. Perhaps in so doing they pay him a compliment which we, with our easy acceptance (and forgiveness) of genius, no longer can. Thomas Mann might well have appreciated the irony. One can, as always, only wonder about Wagner.


1 Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Columbia University Press, 1981.

2 Debussy and Wagner, Eulenberg Books (London), 1979.

3 When I was studying with Darius Milhaud in California during the early 1950s, he told me (in connection with this story, which appears in his fascinating memoirs as I have quoted it above) that whenever he heard by mischance the music of Wagner in a concert, he always put on a recording of Mozart when he returned home, to “clean my ears.”

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.