bryan magee wagner and philosophy

sunday telegraph, 1 november 2000

Richard Wagner occupies a unique position in the Western cultural pantheon. His operas could arguably be said to the highpoint of Western classical tradition, yet his music draws as much hostility as adulation. In part this arises from the way Wagner reworked the traditional operatic form and stretched tonality to its limits. But the hostility also arises from Wagner's venomous anti-semitism, which for many taints his music. In Wagner and Philosophy Bryan Magee tries to make sense of both the man and his music by placing Wagner in the context of nineteenth century thought. Magee possesses both a deep sympathy for Wagner's music and an independence of mind that allows him to rethink much of the hostility to Wagner.

'The repellent nature of Wagner's anti-semitism', Magee observes, 'is not a licence to misrepresent it.' Much of the discussion of Wagner's politics is 'anachronistic' because it reads back into Wagner's life interpretations that may hold in our time but did not hold in his. Living as we do in the shadow of the Holocaust, most of us find anti-semitism repugnant. In Wagner's time, however, it was unexceptional. Many leading prewar artists, from Dostoevsky to TS Eliot, were deeply anti-semitic. Certainly, Wagner's anti-semitism was more virulent than most but, as Magee shows, there is no reason to consider him a proto-fascist.

Nor should we allow Wagner's politics to cloud our judgement of his music. A work of art cannot be entirely removed from the social circumstances that produced it, but nor can it be judged by the same criteria as we might bring to bear upon a work of philosophy or of politics. As the great Jewish conductor Sir Georg Solti has said of Wagner, 'Anyone who can produce such beauty, whether he be Jewish, anti-semite, revolutionary, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilisation lasts.'

Far from being a reactionary, Magee argues, the young Wagner was a utopian socialist. He was deeply influenced by the young Hegelians - the group of radical thinkers out of whose number Karl Marx emerged - and in particular by Ludwig Feuerbach. Many of the themes central to Wagner's operas - the hostility to Christianity, the view of religion as a myth that nevertheless tells important truths about ourselves, and the exaltation of love as a means of redemption - were distilled from Feuerbach's thought.

In 1849, Wagner was forced into exile after taking part in an abortive revolution. In the decade that followed Wagner's whole approach to politics, art and life transformed. Magee argues persuasively that it was not that Wagner became a rightwing reactionary, as many claim, but that he became disillusioned with politics altogether. Concluding that the world could not be changed politically, Wagner looked to art as the means of both personal and national salvation. Wagner's transformation was sealed by his discovery of Arthur Schopenhauer's work. There have been few philosophers more misanthropic than Schopenhauer. He viewed existence as a miserable business upon which one should turn one's back and refused to be involved. Sexual love and the arts, above all the art of music, Schopenhauer claimed, were the most valuable of human activities.

Wagner had already written the libretto for the Ring cycle by the early 1850s. Discovering Schopenhauer, however, made him reinterpret his own texts. As Wagner himself put it, only after reading Schopenhauer did he truly understand the characters he had created in the Ring. Magee explores the impact of Schopenhauer on both Wagner's politics and his music, particularly through detailed analyses of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal.

There remains, however, something incomplete about Magee's account. Wagner, he writes, became, like most people, 'testier, crustier, as he got older'. His 'mid-life crisis' led him to renounce socialism and to rethink the role of art in human life. Yet there is surely more to Wagner's disengagement from politics than simply the crotchetiness of middle age? Europe itself was changing. The revolutions of 1848 and 1849 helped create a social climate that was both more illiberal and more pessimistic. Racial ideas became embedded in European culture, and nationalism and anti-semitism became much more virulent. These tendencies were particularly strong in Germany. Because German nationhood came so late into the nineteenth century, German nationalists tended to exaggerate both the importance of German history and culture and the differences between the German volk and others. The consequence of all this was to ingrain a deeply Romantic form of nationalism. Wagner's search for 'authenticity' in music, his use of myth and saga, his vision of culture as the embodiment of a people's essence, all derived from the intellectual and social ferment of the time.

Wagner's greatest works are universal in the way they rework myth, through a fusion of music and drama, to explore the human condition. But they also emerged from, and spoke to, the specific circumstances of late-nineteenth century Europe and, in particular, of Germany.