Richard Wagner’s legacy has been overshadowed, and some would say permanently marred, by the manner in which he became the poster child of Hitler’s grotesque Third Reich. Yet should we condemn his music for this reason?
Nice to see your music selections. But Wagner, your favorite composer! Say it ain’t so, Joe!
The above-quoted words were written to me by a friend after he had read an essay of mine in the Imaginative Conservative in which I listed some of my favourite works of classical music. The essay praised the music of Tallis, Byrd, Verdi, Fauré, Allegri, Schubert, and Bach, and ranged in scope from anonymous songs from fourteenth-century Catalonia to modern film scores by Richard Einhorn and Howard Shore. My friend had no problem with my waxing enthusiastic about Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major or Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony nor, for that matter, did he question my praise of Vaughan Williams, or my admiration for the romantic patriotism of Sibelius or Smetana, or the minimalism of Arvo Pärt. All was fine, so it seemed, until I revealed, or perhaps confessed, that my favourite composer, whose work I admired above all others, was none other than Richard Wagner, the mercurial and some would say mad genius who seems to be the bête noire of many Christian music lovers. My crime, in the eyes of my friend, was my description of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture as “probably the one work of music that I admire above all others, and is by the one composer that I admire above all others,” to which I added that “this soaringly impassioned tour de force transports me out of myself into somewhere better.”
Why is it that the genius of Richard Wagner continues to be so controversial? Perhaps his legacy has been overshadowed and some would say permanently marred by the manner in which he became the poster child of Hitler’s grotesque Third Reich. There’s no doubt that the Nazis coopted Wagner’s genius to give credence to their “volkish” desire to make Germanic myth and art the quasi-religion of the Reich, thereby supplanting “semitic” Christianity with something more worthy of the Herrenvolk. But why should Wagner be held accountable for the manner in which maniacs perverted the purpose and meaning of his work a full fifty years after his death? Why should all that is good and noble in Norse and German mythology be forever cursed because of its being abused by Hitler and the Nazis? “I have in this war a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael in 1943. “Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” Should Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings be condemned merely because he took his inspiration from the same “noble northern spirit” which had inspired Wagner’s own Ring cycle?
My friend might concede that Wagner should not be condemned as a precursor of Nazism merely because the Nazis embraced him, tainting his reputation by tarring him with their own blood-stained brush. With such “friends,” Wagner might indeed complain that he doesn’t need any enemies! But what of his association with Nietzsche? Isn’t this more problematic?
It is true that Nietzsche had originally championed the work of Wagner and had befriended him but it is also true, and hugely significant, that he broke off his friendship and spent the final years of his life ranting against Wagner’s selling out to Christianity. He saved particular scorn for what he condemned as Wagner’s affirmation of Christian concepts of chastity in Parsifal, the great composer’s final opera. Far from disagreeing with Nietzsche’s accusation that Parsifal was a Christian work, Wagner described the opera himself, in a letter to his patron, King Ludwig II, as “this most Christian of works.”
Describing Parsifal to his wife Cosima as his “last card,” Wagner’s final great work can be seen as something of a Christian swan song, a bowing out on a Christian note. And yet anyone who has seen the opera will know that it’s hardly a work that is unproblematic from the perspective of orthodox theology. As the German Wagnerian scholar Ulrike Kienzle has commented quite correctly, “Wagner’s turn to Christian mythology, upon which the imagery and spiritual contents of Parsifal rest, is idiosyncratic and contradicts Christian dogma in many ways.” And yet, even conceding that this is the case, Wagner’s final work still represents a crucial and significant turn in the direction of the Christian faith, a fact that anti-Christians, such as Nietzsche, could not help but condemn.
The point is that Wagner was pointing in the right direction in the final years of his life, and moving in the right direction, flirting with Catholicism itself. Like all men, he is homo viator, a man on the journey of life, or more correctly a man on life’s pilgrimage. To be sure, he remains controversial but I am not the only Christian, by any means, who admires his work. One thinks of Fr. Owen Lee, the great expert on Wagner, famous for his interval broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, and also of Sir Reginald Goodall, the doyen of conductors of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who was a convert to the Catholic faith. One thinks also of the great Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, who wrote a whole book examining Wagner’s relationship with the Faith. And then there’s Maurice Baring, the great literary convert and friend of Chesterton, who described Wagner as a “restless soul, for ever seeking bliss,/athirst for ever and unsatisfied.” Dare we hope, in spite of all the controversy, that Wagner has now found the bliss he was forever seeking and that his thirst for the Divine has now been satisfied?
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (June 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.