Today is the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner. In the 70 years that he lived he changed the course and the history of music, not only in a tonal sens but also in the way that is composed and put on stage. Once can with almost absolute certainty say that not only music but film and theatre as well, would not be the same if it hadn’t been for him, and some of the things in those art forms which we today considered natural, such as the dimming of lights in the audience and highlighting of the stage, were in fact his inventions.
Although his concept of „gesamtkunstwerk“ never really realized itself in the full sense, modern art, especially film, is steadily moving in that direction. Before Wagner, opera was dominated by singers and orchestras would adjust themselves to them. With Wagner, they were on equal footing, and each got it’s chance to shine during the performance, in a way a well structured sports team enables individual players to truly stand out.
Wagner was a controversial figure even in his lifetime, with many polemics going on about him, not only in the field of music and art. Perhaps his most notorious move was the publication of the essay called „Jewishness in Music“ ("Das Judenthum in der Musik") in which he attacks composers Mendelsohn and Meyerbeer on ethno-religious basis, generalizing what he saw as their flaws as artists onto the Jewish people as a whole, adding nasty and venomous remarks against Jews for good measure, all the while trying to represent this text as cultural and social critique. This earned him a reputation of a notorious antisemite. What happened in his lifetime, however, would be nothing compared to what was to come after his death.
Adolf Hitler was a notorious fan of Wagner, a fact he had never hidden. Wagner family helped the nazis from early on and racial theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an undoubted intellectual pre-cursor of the Third Reich, married Wagner daughter Eva 24 years after the composer’s death. Together with Cosima, Wagner’s widow, he formed the so-called „Bayreuth circle“ which tried to connect Wagner’s art with the racist and chauvinist politics they promoted. All this created the perception of Wagner as the artistic prophet of nazism.
This perception, hovewer, is utterly incorrect. Chamberlain and Cosima Wagner twisted Wagner’s art and his prose writings(even „Jewishness in music“) for their own ends in a way simillar to Elisabeth Nietche and her apropriation of her brother’s work. Also, Wagner was misrepresented as an imperial German nationalist, whereas, in fact, he had been a socialist-anarchist who despised militarism and imperialism. And contrary to the popular belief that Wagner was the official composer of the Third Reich, the number of his performances declined by more then a third on the period from 1933 to 1939 with a further decline to come during the war. All this I will discuss in detail in some future entries. Today is the day to enjoy the music.
Herzliche Gluckwunscen zum Geburtstag, Meister!