Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics; Edited by David C. Large and William Weber; Cornell University Press; Ithaca.

“We recently had a very serious conversation on the subject of Richard Wagner,” Debussy once remarked to Pierre Louys. “I merely stated that Wagner was the greatest man who ever existed, and went no further. I didn’t say that he was God himself, though indeed I may have thought something of the sort.” Yet on the downside there is Tolstoy, who wrote of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, “It is a model work of counterfeit art so gross as to be even ridiculous.” When it comes to Wagner, there is little middle ground.

Nonetheless, in Wagnerismin European Culture and Politics six historians do their best to assess the extent of Wagner’s influence during the latter half of the 19th century. The authors argue that Wagner “took the romantic idea of genius—of the artist as a cultural hero—further than any other artist in the 19th century, and the advancement of his work therefore became a crusade for many people who believed in that idea.” Although most would consider this a satisfactory definition of Wagnerism, the authors see considerably more. Indeed,whether in culture or politics, they descry Wagner’s influence nearly everywhere they look: in France, Italy, Russia, Britain, and the United States. By the book’s end, one is left wondering why Swaziland and its Wagnerians were given such short shrift.

My point is not to make light of what is generally a well-researched book, but rather to emphasize that Wagnerism, if it is to mean anything at all, cannot be all things to all people. The authors themselves seem well aware of this when they observe that both Wagner’s “adherents and opponents seemed bent on employing performances of his music dramas as occasions for political demonstrations and testimonials” that often “had little to do with what Wagner may have been trying to say through the medium of musical dramaturgy.” Indeed, such liberties have been taken with Wagner in our own century: one need only be reminded of the Nazis’ appropriation of him as a spiritual forefather or the more recent efforts of Chereau and others to cast the Ring in a Marxist light to realize that, as with Nietzsche, most people have seen in Wagner what they please. Yet this point, made convincingly  enough in the introduction, seems to fade a bit with each page.

In his interesting but tendentious essay “Wagner’s Bayreuth Disciples,” David C. Large finds it “hard to believe” that Wagner “would have mistaken the Third Reich for his ideal of the ‘purely human’ society.” Very well. But would this alone have enabled Wagner to resist the Nazis’ enshrinement of him had he lived long enough to witness it? Certainly Wagner’s notorious megalo mania and often  convenient morality do him no favors in this regard. Wagner’s biographer, Ernest Newman, said that the composer “knew no law in life except the full realization of himself at the moment.”

But Large’s primary concern, which his fellow contributors incidentally seem to share, is to put some ideological distance between Wagner and the taint of the volkisch right. The traditional association of Wagner with the right, says Large, was fostered not by Wagner and his writings, but by his disciples, “the industrious dwarfs of Bayreuth.” lndeed, a passage from the conclusion (presumably written by Large and Weber) brings to the surface this troubling undercurrent:

Wagnerism was not by nature ‘proto-fascist.’ If Wagner’s name has been increasingly associated with Nazism and the Third Reich, our survey shows some quite different tendencies. Among the national movements we have seen, a tendency toward the Left was if anything more common than one toward the Right.

This notion—namely that Wagner was a man of socialist sensibilities—is hardly new. As far back as 1898, the imperfect Wagnerian Bernard Shaw interpreted the Ring as a socialist allegory in his The Perfect Wagnerite. But to suggest that many of Wagner’s writings are not in the tradition of the volkisch right is simply to ignore the facts. Still, volkisch thinkers like Lagarde, Gobineau, and Treitschke—or even Wagner’s own son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain—are not Goebbels or Streicher. So while there is some merit to Large’s assertion that “the exploitation of Wagner’s legacy during the Third Reich amounted to an intellectual abuse,” it is wrong to suggest that Wagner had leftist leanings.

The authors fail to apprehend that in the last analysis Wagner was, and remains, essentially a German phenomenon. “Yes, Wagner is German,” wrote Thomas Mann in 1933, “he  is national, in the most exemplary, perhaps too exemplary way.” No amount of leftist revisionism should ever obscure this. cc