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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)
Richard Taruskin

All the more ineluctable are these connections in view of Wagner's lifelong habit, which he made a point of enunciating not merely as practice but as principle, of writing his own librettos—or, as he put it, the “poems” for his “dramas.” A playwright even before he was a musician, he found this a natural enough task. But he insisted that it was a necessary prerequisite for returning drama to its true estate as the supreme artwork in which all artistic media were united. Thus it is a mistake to regard the libretto of an opera, even one by Wagner, as providing in itself a dramma per musica, to quote the old Florentine slogan—a “drama for [i.e., to be realized through] music.” Neither the words nor the music were privileged in Wagner's conception; the drama arose out of their union.

All of this theorizing became explicit during a momentous hiatus in Wagner's composing activity, one attributable in equal measure to factors internal and external. After the Weimar premiere of Lohengrin under Liszt in 1850 not another Wagnerian premiere would take place until 1865. And except for a single short and intensely frustrating bout in the summer of 1850, Wagner put hardly a note on paper between 1848 and 1853. This period of musical dormancy in Wagner's career has often been compared to the chrysalis or pupa phase in the life of an insect, during which the larva is passively—and, seemingly, miraculously—transformed into the imago, or fully developed organism. Wagner's was no passive transformation, however; no artist ever reflected more furiously or with a greater sense of purpose on his art. It was a willed self-transformation, an act of genuine renunciation and heroism that has scarcely a parallel in art history. Its results were equally unparalleled, and momentous.

To deal with the external factors first: Tannhaüser’s poor reception in 1845, and the dismal failure of his repeated attempts to reform the administration of the court theater establishment, alienated Wagner from his job and inclined him toward increasingly open political agitation. In the big incendiary year 1848 he met the exiled Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76), under whose spell he wrote a series of articles culminating in Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution), written on a visit to Paris in the summer of 1849, at the beginning of his exile.

It is in this tract that we encounter for the first time, and in crude but highly concentrated (and quotable) form, the theory of music drama that Wagner would will himself into embodying over the next half-dozen years, and to which he gave most detailed expression in an extended pamphlet called Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (“The artwork of the future,” 1849) and a full-length book called Oper und Drama (“Opera and drama, 1851, rev. 1868). Like most of the reformist tracts in operatic history, these writings purported to revive and renew the ritual theater of ancient Greece, and recapture its fabled ethos. Unlike earlier reformers, however, but very much in the spirit of his time, Wagner conceived of that ethos in social terms. The Greek tragedy, the union of Apollo and Dionysus, of strength of character and creative vitality, was in his view the mainstay of Athenian democracy.

This was the essential link—the essential allegory—binding art and the public weal. “Hand-in-hand with the dissolution of the Athenian State marched the downfall of Tragedy,”11 Wagner vociferated in Art and Revolution. “As the spirit of community (Gemeinschaft) split itself along a thousand lines of egoistic cleavage, so was the great united work (Gesamtkunstwerk) of Tragedy disintegrated into its individual factors.” Those disunited splinters, sad fruit of social degeneration, were the proud separate arts as practiced in modern times: poetry, music, painting, and the rest, each with its own canons of illusive isolated excellence, each with its own zealously guarded traditions of craft and technique. No wonder that the arts had degenerated into playthings of the wealthy and the titled, or—worst of all—sites of commercial (“Jewish”) activity.

The spiritual condition the modern arts expressed, according to Wagner, was one of abjectness, “soft complacence,” social alienation. Or rather, this fallen state expressed itself through the modern arts, for such debased artistic practices could not truly express anything, least of all the despairing state of the modern world. “Of such a condition Art could never be the true expression,” Wagner sneered. “Its only possible expression was Christianity,” which emphasized not the free actions of free men, but only “Faith—that is to say, the confession of mankind's miserable plight, and the giving up of all attempt to escape from out this misery.”12 Christianity, Wagner said here more explicitly than anywhere else, was the contemptible consolation of the weak. Here he came closest to the other pair of thinkers with whom Jacques Barzun linked him in infamy. (Compare Marx, for whom religion was “the opium of the people.”)

But unlike Marx, Wagner did not oppose all religion. Art was his religion, as art (or so he conceived it) had been the religion of the Greeks. “To the Greeks,” he wrote, “the production of a tragedy was a religious festival, where the gods bestirred themselves upon the stage and bestowed on men their wisdom.”13 The surest proof of the modern debasement of art and religion alike, for Wagner, was the fact that almost every government had censorship laws that prohibited the theatrical portrayal of religious sacraments: “our evil conscience has so lowered the theater in public estimation, that it is the duty of the police to prevent the stage from meddling in the slightest with religion,” while all the while the stage should be religion's natural habitat. But what sort of religion, if not Christian? Here again the Greeks had the answer: “With the Greeks,”14 Wagner wrote, the perfect work of art, the Drama, was the abstract and epitome of all that was expressible in the Grecian nature. It was the nation itself—in intimate connection with its own history—that stood mirrored in its artwork, that communed with itself and, within the span of a few hours, feasted its eyes upon its own noblest essence. All division of this enjoyment, all scattering of the forces concentrated on one point, all diversion of the elements into separate channels, must needs have been as hurtful to this unique and noble artwork as to the like-formed state itself.

Thus the result of that division was not just the debasement of the separate arts, but the downfall of the “public conscience” as well. The reuniting of the arts in the perfect Drama, then, will be a regeneration of society. And here is where the nexus of Art and Revolution becomes an explicit prescription.

Each one of these dissevered arts, nursed and luxuriously tended for the entertainment of the rich, has filled the world to overflowing with its products; in each, great minds have brought forth marvels; but the one true Art has not been born again, either in or since the so-called Renaissance. The perfect Art-work, the great united utterance of a free and lovely public life, the Drama, Tragedy,—howsoever great the poets who have here and there indited tragedies—is not yet born again: for the reason that it cannot be re-born, but must be born anew.

Only the great Revolution of Mankind, whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian Tragedy, can win for us this Art-work. For only this Revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler Universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit of a time of beautiful but narrow-meted culture—and tearing it, engulfed.15

That, of course, is the reconstituted social cohesion that only a reconstituted art-religion can vouchsafe. As Edward Gibbon presciently wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire some sixty years before, “the exercise of public worship appears to be the only solid foundation of the religious sentiments of the people,” adding pointedly that “the memory of theological opinions cannot long be preserved, without the artificial helps of priests, of temples, and of books.”16 Gibbon was reflecting on the death of the national pagan religion that had sustained Rome's glory days. It was the religion that Wagner—as artist-priest, author of books, and builder of temples—wanted to restore by providing the means for the renewed exercise of public worship.

As an ostensible follower of Bakunin, who preached the violent overthrow of all political states so as to restore mankind to its naturally virtuous and pacific nature, Wagner made a point, in his tract of 1849, of forswearing all political nationalism. “If the Grecian Art-work embraced the spirit of a fair and noble nation,” he wrote, “the Art-work of the Future must embrace the spirit of a free mankind delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality; its racial imprint must be no more than an embellishment, the individual charm of manifold diversity, and not a cramping barrier.”17

And yet he could not follow Bakunin all the way to the radical individualism that the Russian, a true anarchist, favored. Possibly in unwitting accord with his Lutheran upbringing, Wagner sought emancipation not in individual autonomy but in Gemeinschaft—community, or group spirit. Art's great task, as Wagner formulated it, was “to teach man's social impulse its noblest meaning, and guide it toward its true direction.”18 The envisioned brotherhood was that of “the strong fair Man,” as the composer put it, italicizing every word, “to whom Revolution shall give his Strength, and Art his Beauty!”

So the Art-work of the future celebrated and guided a cult of strength. “Only the Strong know Love,” Wagner continued, italics still lending his prose a fever pitch,

only Love can fathom Beauty; only Beauty can fashion Art. The love of weaklings for each other can only manifest itself as the goad of lust; the love of the weak for the strong is abasement and fear; the love of the strong for the weak is pity and forbearance; but the love of the strong for the strong is Love, for it is the free surrender to one who cannot compel us. Under every fold of heaven's canopy, in every race, shall men by real freedom grow up to equal strength; by strength to truest love; and by true love to beauty. But Art is Beauty energized and turned to Knowledge.

And as the Knowledge of all men will find at last its religious utterance in the one effective Knowledge of free united manhood: so will all these rich developments of Art find their profoundest focus in the Drama, in the glorious Tragedy of Man. The Tragedy will be the feast of all mankind; in it,—set free from each conventional etiquette,—free, strong, and beauteous man will celebrate the dolour and delight of all his love, and consecrate in lofty worth the great Love-offering of his Death.19

Needless to say, these ravings are of interest to us only because after a long, ruthlessly honest, and heroically self-disciplined quest, Wagner found the creative wherewithal to realize this dream in a fashion that many then and since have found overwhelmingly convincing. In themselves Utopian pronouncements matter little. They come as dependably from cranks, charlatans, and adolescents as from geniuses, and they usually possess nothing but historical interest (that is, as signs of the times). If Wagner's career had ended at this point he would be remembered today for his three romantic operas, and as a blustery “campus radical” in the enthusiastic but ineffectual spirit of ’48. Not the theorizing but the creative work—not the intention, in other words, but the deed—has won Wagner his towering stature. The controversy that continues to surround his name is above all a controversy over the extent to which the deed necessarily embodied the intention. What it finally comes down to is a debate as to whether the identification of Wagner's creative achievement with his political and social purposes amounts to anything more than a particularly noisome and destructive instance of the genetic fallacy: the confusion of the actual nature or essence of a thing with the circumstances of its origin or its motivating premises.


(11) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. I, trans. William Ashton Ellis (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895), p. 35.

(12) Ibid., p. 37.

(13) Ibid., p. 47.

(14) Ibid., p. 52.

(15) Ibid., p. 53.

(16) Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. III, Chap. xxviii, Part 3.

(17) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. I, pp. 53–54.

(18) Ibid., p. 56.

(19) Ibid., pp. 57–58.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Jul. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Jul. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Jul. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010003.xml