Wagner, Richard (1813–83)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M051-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved May 20, 2018, from

Article Summary

Wagner has no stature as a writer on philosophical subjects independently of his music dramas. But since those dramas themselves deal with deep, often broadly philosophical issues, his prose writings at their best illuminate both the dramas and their subject-matter.

Richard Wagner was in no sense a trained philosopher, nor did he have any ambitions to philosophize independently of his creative work as a musical dramatist. Nevertheless, his conception both of what music drama should be like, and of the purposes that it should further, led him to write at enormous length on a staggering number of subjects in the most disparate fields, in order to position his own work in relationship to the work of others. He had a speculative temperament, more so than any other great musician apart from Schoenberg, and his reading throughout his life was extremely wide, including frequent but unsystematic study of, among others, PLATO, KANT (§4) and SCHOPENHAUER. It was his ‘conversion’ to Schopenhauer’s system in 1854 which prompted his most sustained philosophical reading, and in obedience to Schopenhauer’s injunction to read Kant, above all the Critique of Pure Reason, he embarked on an ambitious programme, although it is unlikely that he persisted with those parts that had no bearing on his thinking about the nature and function of art or the conduct of life.

After his earliest operas, now infrequently performed, Wagner wrote no dramatic work which did not embody his feelings and thoughts about the relationship of the individual to society, and the possibilities of fulfilment of the self within a framework which was non-theistic but still employed terminology which does not obviously make sense outside a theistic scheme, such as redemption. It is peculiar to Wagner’s constitution that the play between his general thinking, aired in innumerable books, pamphlets, letters and conversations, and that of his artistic works, was invariably dialectical. Athough he gives the impression in both that he is a man who knows exactly what his views are, and is urgently bent on communicating them, they were in constant flux, and as with his close friend and disciple, then enemy NIETZSCHE, the feelings of dissatisfaction he had with each completed (or in the case of The Ring, uncompleted) work drove him to write the next. At the same time, at various stages of his life, he also felt compelled to think out the premisses on which he worked. The periods during which he wrote most of his prose works were, first, in the wake of the unsuccessful revolution in Dresden in 1849 when, in exile in Zurich, he undertook a passionate examination of his most fundamental beliefs, since he felt that a new kind of society and a new kind of art to serve it were necessities; second, in the period after the first Bayreuth Festival of 1876, when he saw for the first time how his magnum opus The Ring actually looked and sounded, and what his mission was to be the brief remaining years of his life.

In his longest theoretical work Opera and Drama, composed in 1850 and published in 1851, Wagner wrote, in entirely characteristic terms:

At a performance of a dramatic work of art, nothing should remain for the synthesising intellect to search for: everything presented in it should be so conclusive as to set our feeling at rest about it; for in this setting at rest of feeling, after it has been aroused to the highest pitch in the act of sympathetic response, resides that very repose which leads us towards an instinctive understanding of life. In drama, we must become knowers through feeling.

It is hard to imagine many artists expressing themselves with such abstract eloquence, even though it is by no means a satisfactory account of the effect of Wagner’s art, as he well knew. For he was endlessly concerned to expound its meaning, and many of his expositions were inconsistent. It was his ambition to replace thinking, which necessarily generalizes, with feeling, which does not, and in that he shares a large inheritance of early Romantic thought. But he realized that to produce works in which that was attempted, without preparing the public for them by exposition of their purpose, and without stressing the perils of assimilating his work with that of traditional operatic composition, was to court disaster; but in adopting the turgidities of contemporary German philosophical writing he only compounded the difficulty of his art.

Wagner learned, too, from the Romantics, to complain about the degenerate condition of modern man, German society, the frivolity of opera and the wretched state of relationships between the sexes, by contrasting them with a golden age, almost always located in classical Greece, when things were ordered differently and better; he also pondered the causes of decline. Thus his theoretical works often combine dubious history, or sheer speculative fantasy, with a statement of lofty ideals for art, in the hope that the efforts of artists free from illusions might lead audiences to set new standards for their rulers and for themselves. Reading Schopenhauer led Wagner to conclude that the human condition was not contingent on historical realities, but is intrinsically terrible, although the ambivalence of feeling he has towards that position, which officially he continued to hold, leads to many of the most fruitful tensions in his art, most manifestly in Tristan und Isolde, the most philosophically strenuous of his works, at the same time that it is the most overpoweringly sensuous and beautiful. And the fact that he regarded himself in that work as having ‘extended, and in some degree corrected’ Schopenhauer’s views about sexual love, which were unequivocally hostile, shows both his naivete as a thinker outside of his art and the extraordinary sophistication and balance of his thinking within his art.

Although his writings on many subjects, such as climate, vegetarianism and the origins of speech, are of only biographical interest, and his thoughts on race and purity of blood are alarming and sometimes disgusting, there are many striking formulations emerging from a mind which teemed with thoughts; too many for its own good, but perhaps as many as were needed for the energy to create his art. If he had not been a supreme artist Wagner’s prose would not be worth reading; but that does not mean that the only thing it illuminates is his art.

Citing this article:
Tanner, Michael. Wagner, Richard (1813–83), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M051-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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