Orpheus in his Underwear

Harold James

In 1892 the English Wagnerphile Mary Burrell tracked down a proof copy of the autobiography dictated by Wagner covering the first 51 years of his life, which had been printed privately in an edition of only 15 for his friends and patrons. She was appalled: she believed the picture Mein Leben gave of Wagner was so unpleasant that the work must have been a forgery by the Master’s enemies. The book was only published, in a version made doubly inaccurate by dependence on the sloppily-printed private edition and by deliberate excision of controversial passages, in 1911. In 1963 it appeared in its complete form, based on a transcript of Cosima Wagner’s manuscript. This is now available in English.

It is easy to see why Mrs Burrell was so shocked. Mein Leben contradicts the late 19th-century picture of the composer painted by his widow and a band of rather unsavoury disciples – most prominently among them, the racist ‘philosopher’ Houston Stewart Chamberlain – and after that by Cosima’s English daughter-in-law, Winifred. Wagner proved for many Englishmen and women the perfect expression of the night-side of European life: the first of these strange disciples, Jessie Laussot, makes her appearance in Mein Leben as one of Wagner’s mistresses in his years of exile. But in Mein Leben there is little of the dark side. What we find instead is a very characteristic early 19th-century hero: a kind of Lucien de Rubempré, leaping from misfortune to extravagant fortune and then falling again, running at full pace up and down metaphorical mountains (as well as real ones: there are lyrical passages in the book describing Wagner’s highly energetic walking tours in the Swiss Alps). We have Wagner, still nominally at school, as a student gambler, duellist and dissolute, saved only by the most amazing luck from the grasp of dangerous enemies. Then he began composing, and also sketching opera plots; his family thought they had done well for the young man in obtaining a post for him as conductor at the Magdeburg Theatre. It turned out to be a disaster: Wagner was not paid properly; and after a performance of his opera was cancelled because the cast had beaten itself bloody in a brawl before the curtain went up, he had to leave Magdeburg. Worse still: he had only stayed with the Magdeburg company because he had met, and fallen for, an ambitious actress Minna Planer, who had an illegitimate daughter and saw an opportunity for herself in bedding the theatre conductor when he was drunk. Wagner married her: not long afterwards she ran away with a rich burgher called Dietrich. Wagner tracked the pair down to a Dresden hotel bedroom. His wife’s good looks had got Wagner a job in Königsberg: now he had to leave because of the Dietrich scandal. He went to Riga, where he was dismissed after two seasons, and from there to Paris, like all impoverished Lucien de Rubemprés, in order to meet the great.

In 1842 his family’s money baled him out and he returned to Germany. His opera Rienzi was an immediate success in Dresden and won him a post as Royal Saxon Kapellmeister. Minna was delighted: Wagner had made it. Then he spoilt it all: he became involved in the politics of 1848, made a speech attacking the Court, and in May 1849 appeared on the barricades alongside Bakunin. By chance (again) he escaped being imprisoned and thus avoided a likely death sentence. The rest of Mein Leben describes Wagner’s exile, spent mostly in Switzerland, but with interludes in Paris, London, Wiesbaden and Vienna. Again there were terrible money worries; and the book ends, like a Balzac novel, when the troubles are over. He has found the perfect woman, Cosima, wife of his young protégé Hans von Bülow, and he has found a loyal patron, the King of Bavaria. On the last page he hears of the death of his old enemy, the German-born Parisian composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wendelin Weissheimer, a minor German composer and Wagner groupie, provides the epitaph by ‘bursting out into harsh laughter at the strange coincidence that this operatic master, who had done so much harm, should not have lived to see this day’.

It is an adventure story of the first order, doubtless with a high fictional content. Though it is about one of the greatest composers, it is not revealing about musical composition, and deflates creativity to the level of a fast-moving yarn. The most striking description is of the genesis of the opening of Das Rheingold. The beginning of existence, a musical version of the opening of St John’s Gospel? Far from it: Wagner went to Genoa and unwisely ate too much ice-cream, which gave him dysentery. In order to recover, he took the steamship to Spezia, but the passage was very violent and ‘my dysentery was supplemented by seasickness.’ After a sleepless night, he lay half-conscious on his couch: he believed he was submerged in water: ‘its rushing soon resolved itself for me into the musical sound of the chord of E flat major, resounding in persistent broken chords; these in turn transformed themselves into melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the E flat major triad never changed, and seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.’

As an adventure, the work suffers from a coyness about Wagner’s women (perhaps because of the circumstances of its dictation to Cosima). About Wagner’s politics, however, it is excellent and illuminating. These were firmly rooted in personal experience. Wagner wanted to revolt against the kind of patronage on which he depended (there are accounts here of the generosity of the Ritter family, of Otto Wesendonck, of the Princess Metternich, of Count Hatzfeld). Patronage was unreliable, and humiliating because of the degree of personal dependence it implied. At first Wagner played the game according to the traditional rules: from Riga he wrote to Meyerbeer sending him the score of Das Liebesverbot: ‘I was not disconcerted at receiving no answer whatever to all this; what mattered to me, on the contrary, was simply the possibility of saying that I was “in touch with Paris”.’ Meyerbeer was in fact extremely sympathetic to Wagner and sent letters of recommendation on his behalf to the Director of the Grand Opera. Wagner soon discovered how little this really meant: hundreds of such letters were written by the French cultural élite about outsiders, who rarely succeeded in penetrating the charmed circle.

By way of reaction, Wagner took as his model those musicians who rejected society and patronage: the dead Beethoven, whose work Wagner consistently championed and whose Ninth Symphony played a major part in the artistic planning of the Dresden political revolution of 1849. The living musician whose life Wagner admired most was not Berlioz or Liszt, both of whom behaved to him with great friendliness, but Luigi Spontini, whose impossible outbursts alarmed the Dresden establishment. Spontini’s behaviour in fact provided a comic version of what Wagner’s was to become. Spontini demanded endless rehearsals for his music; he believed that he had invented a new harmonic device, the suspended sixth, which meant that all future opera would necessarily be derivative from his own; he thought that he represented a synthesis of all existing European culture. He delighted Wagner, too, by announcing that German creative talent had been wrecked by the German theatre impresarios (‘juifs errants’). Wagner concluded: ‘I felt myself more deeply allied to him in his contempt for these figures’; and this ‘filled me with an almost frightening sympathy for the man’.

Wagner’s hatred of the frequently Jewish impresarios was such that he believed that it was necessary to create a new kind of audience. Wagner’s public was unpredictable: it approved of Rienzi but not of the Dutchman; and he was in consequence very pleased to find that the friends of Tannhäuser were people who did not normally go to the theatre or the opera. His hatred of audiences was reinforced by the disastrous reception of his Paris production of Tannhäuser in 1861: the opera was interrupted by Napoleon III’s political opponents, and its cast, particularly the tenor Niemann, behaved disloyally to the Master. Niemann, when booed, simply gestured to the box where the composer was supposed to be sitting.

In opposition to this world of courts, patronage and dependence, Wagner set out a theory of the revolutionary theatre. In 1848-9 theatre was closely bound to the political upheaval: a libretto written by Wagner containing a revolutionary chorus (‘Die Franzosen vor Nizza’) produced a revolutionary, patriotic and anti-Habsburg stir in Prague. The vulgar nationalism of Henry the Fowler’s address in Lohengrin with its demand for a war against the Slavic East, the only explicitly nationalist political piece in Wagner’s musical work, arose out of the ferment preceding 1848. Wagner wrote in the revolutionary year a poem very close to the Lohengrin text. It is reproduced in Mein Leben:

It is the old war against the East
Coming home to us today.
The people’s sword must never rest
When freedom is at bay.

In the aftermath of defeat and exile, Wagner’s prose works (‘Art and Revolution’, ‘Judaism in Music’ and ‘The Art-Work of the Future’) set out programmatically ‘conceptions of a possible form of human society which would correspond wholly, indeed solely, to my highest artistic ideals’. ‘Art and Revolution’, the work of an artist banished for his beliefs, was a best-seller; characteristically Wagner felt that he was cheated by the publishers of his prose (his dealings with publishers were at least as quarrelsome and complicated as those with theatre impresarios). In those years, after the failure of revolution, Wagner believed, like many others, that Europe was cursed and that the only hope lay on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1849 in Paris Wagner records his disgust at the revival of the old order, now more vulgar than ever: at the ‘sight of the garçons caissiers from the banks, with their large money sacks slung over their shoulders and fat portfolios in their hands ... They were never so ubiquitous as now, when the old rule of capital was zealously reasserting itself victoriously against the previously dreaded socialist propaganda with almost insulting pomp in the attempt to regain public confidence.’

Wagner still cultivated revolutionaries, like the poet Georg Herwegk: but Herwegk confronted the composer with a work that set off an internal revolution. There was an apolitical way of escaping from the world of convention, a way which eventually was to offer a better account of the purpose and nature of artistic activity than the romantic utopian one that Wagner had previously used. The new approach involved a retreat from the public. In Mein Leben Wagner describes the impact of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy: it led him to abandon, in favour of the doctrine of the abnegation of the will, what he calls the ‘cheerful’ Greek view of the world, according to which a social and cultural re-ordering would realise the perfectibility of all human beings. This was a complete intellectual about-face. Armed with the new doctrine, Wagner reinterpreted Wotan and rewrote the ending of the last of the Ring operas. The composition of Walküre, too, would have turned out differently had it not been for the revolution in Wagner’s philosophy. But the impact of Schopenhauer was not as great on the Ring as it was on the two works that Wagner conceived in the immediate aftermath of his discovery of Schopenhauer – Tristan and Meistersinger. Tristan dedicates himself to death and self-destruction; Hans Sachs is a much more unambiguous self-abnegator than Wotan.

It was not Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck that gave rise to his involvement with Tristan: rather the other way round. Here Mein Leben does not lie. In the first place, it was characteristic of Wagner that he sought to live out the lives of his characters, and so in the 1860s he found himself an Isolde in rather the same way as in the 1840s he had cast himself as the tribune Rienzi liberating and then betrayed by his people. Secondly, the affair with the wife of his Maecenas Otto Wesendonck represented for him at least an emotional liberation from the dependence implied in patronage: a precise echo of the betrayal by Tristan of the world of public values and public morality embodied in the decent but elderly and impotent King Marke.

It is artistically appropriate that neither Tristan nor Meistersinger was performed during the years covered by Mein Leben, although extracts were played in public concerts and Wagner played larger parts on the piano for his friends. There were lengthy rehearsals for Tristan in Vienna, where the tenor pleaded a constant indisposition, as well as unsuccessful attempts to stage the work in Karlsruhe. In the end, both works were first performed in Munich: they had to wait for the self-abnegating patron to finance the self-abnegating will. When that happened, Wagner’s life of adventure really was over and the composer could become the gloomy irritable sage of the Asyl on Lake Lucerne and the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth. Cosima’s creature could now take over, while she herself took down in dictation the story of the hatching of the pupa into the butterfly.

That this important and lively story is available in English in a modern edition, with the cuts of 1911 restored, is to be welcomed. The translation is done in chatty style, as if Wagner’s table-talk were being recorded. This is a mistake. Wagner’s account of his pupa stage was carefully composed and spoken with great solemnity. Often, indeed, the German is slightly archaic, as Wagner adopts the historicising idiom of his operas. To put all this into 1960s English does not contribute towards an understanding of Wagner’s purpose. The English text abounds with words like ‘fabulous, ‘fantastic’, ‘fans’; nichtswürdige Buben is not ‘worthless bums’. And there is a grave mistranslation of a key phrase: Wagner describes his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck as a ‘wirkliches, freundliches Verhältnis’, a ‘real, friendly relationship’. ‘Wirklich’ is a rather stronger phrase than the English ‘real’, and carries a sense of something ‘charged with meaning’. Gray and Whittall believe the phrase should be read as ‘purely friendly relationship to the young lady’. This is much too unambiguous. Wagner’s phrase need not be taken to mean that his relationship was chaste. Doubtless he was teasing Cosima as he dictated.

R.J. Hollingdale’s translation of Nietzsche’s four essays, Untimely Meditations, on the other hand, is highly accomplished, and captures well the tone of the irascible and argumentative original. The essays were written when the philosopher was most under Wagner’s influence, and were originally published between 1874 and 1876. All are concerned with a very Wagnerian theme: the public reception of ideas and of aesthetic expression. The first essay, a polemic directed against the popular Biblical exegist and inventor of a modern Hegelian religion, David Strauss, was written at Wagner’s request; the other three frequently cite Wagner’s works. They are ‘untimely’ in that they provide a powerful criticism of those seeking to derive a set of guidelines, political or moral, from the past or from a mythical version of the past. The theme was particularly explosive after the foundation in 1871 of a unified German state which many liberals believed owed its legitimacy to a German cultural tradition and not merely to the political machinations of a Bismarck.

This polemic echoes the rejection by the late Wagner of the public function of music, a function of which he had in the 1840s been such a bold exponent. Nietzsche’s essay ‘Wagner in Bayreuth’ provides a fine explanation of the early Wagner’s embarrassment about the public role. He interprets Wagner’s characters as following an inner compulsion to act in a certain way. Loyalty to others is the most important expression of this inner drive: the loyalty of Elisabeth to Tannhäuser, of Senta to the Dutchman, of Elsa to Lohengrin, of Isolde, Marke and Kurwenal to Tristan, and of Brünnhilde to Wotan’s true will. Yet the dictates of such loyalty conflicted with the demands of the world Wagner saw around him: ‘there was the impulse, deriving from chance and from life itself, to acquire power, fame, pleasure and he was tormented even more frequently by the inexorable need to earn a a living ... How is it possible to stay loyal, to remain whole, under these conditions?’ The world of patrons conflicted with Wagner’s inner world of loyalty. Nietzsche believed that Ludwig and Bayreuth would provide a new, loyal public to replace the fickle audiences of conventional theatres. Yet even when he wrote this essay, he had doubts about Wagner and Bayreuth. In J.P. Stern’s Introduction Nietzsche’s diary is quoted: Wagner had nothing more, Nietzsche said there, than a synthetic ‘actor’s nature’. Nietzsche came to suspect that the prophet of Bayreuth was merely the final – essentially unchanged – version of the restless dilettante of Mein Leben.

Martin von Amerongen’s book Wagner: A Case-History has a title taken from Nietzsche, but avoids both the sycophancy of ‘Wagner in Bayreuth’ and the bitterness of the philosopher’s later attack on his master. It is a well-written and quick-flowing examination of Wagner, of his influence, and of prominent Wagnerians such as Theodor Herzl and Adolf Hitler.

Amerongen insists that we should not condemn Wagner either for his taste or for his appalling influence on others: after all, ‘who are we to criticise Wagner’s pink underwear?’ He wants to defend Wagner against both the Mrs Burrells and the Nietzsches, and has done about as clever a deflating exercise on Wagner as possible with the aim of desensitising Wagner ideologically so that more people can sit back and enjoy the music. I do not believe that this attempt is successful. There is, rather oddly, in a book dedicated to the depoliticisation of the composer, no discussion of Wagner’s music at all. Moreover, to argue that Wagner was often very silly in his personal life, and that many Wagnerians, especially Bayreuth audiences, are also very silly, is fine (and probably true): it does not, however, prove that Wagner’s ideas had no influence. Amerongen does not produce evidence to show that many people in the 19th and 20th centuries were not and are not very silly.