Late in the nineteenth century, men and women in apparent possession of their senses heard Richard Wagner’s new operas and announced that their lives had changed forever. Charles Baudelaire saw Tannhäuser in 1861 and gushed, “Listening to this impassioned, despotic music, painted upon the depths of darkness, riven by dreams, it seems like the vertiginous imaginings of opium.” (Baudelaire, author of The Flowers of Evil, meant this as a compliment.) The twenty-three-year-old Gustav Mahler, after hearing Parsifal, wrote, “I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life.” For the first time in history, a composer lent his name to a cultural movement with ramifications far beyond music. As Adolf Hitler observed in 1943, “At the beginning of this century there were people called Wagnerians. Other people had no special name.”
Why did Wagner loom so large to his contemporaries? The answer is that he evoked, in the sensuous, intimate realm of musical experience, an apocalyptic vision of the Old World. Wagner’s stage works declared that the time of the Old Regime was over—the world of covenants and customs had come to an end, and nothing could or should restrain the impassioned impulse of the empowered individual. Wagner’s baton split the sea of European culture.
It is hard to make sense of what has become of the West without engaging Wagner on his chosen terrain in the musical theater, for electronic media are a poor substitute for live performance. To engage Wagner on that chosen terrain is harder to do as directors bury him under supposedly creative interpretations. We have had Marxist, feminist, and minimalist versions of The Nibelung’s Ring and a production of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, dominated by a video image of a decomposing rabbit. A demythologized Wagner opera, much less a decomposing one, is not Wagner at all; as Thomas Mann said, Wagner’s work “is the naturalism of the nineteenth century sanctified through myth.” Without the myth, there is no sanctification, and Wagner’s effort to substitute art for religion becomes incomprehensible.
Among the world’s leading venues, New York’s Metropolitan Opera remains the last redoubt of tradition. For all its technological dazzle, Robert Lepage’s September 2010 production there of Das Rheingold—the first installment of Wagner’s tetralogy of the Nibelung’s Ring—faithfully serves Wagner’s intent. Lepage, who directs the Cirque du Soleil, employs circus tricks that Wagner might have envied. His stage presents two dozen parallel planks. At first view these seem like yet another minimalist setting, but they twist and bend like an Escher drawing into imaginative sets enhanced by lighting and animation. The stage forms a helix for the gods’ descent into the caves of Nibelheim. Doubling for the singers, acrobats on wires appear to walk down a staircase at right angles to the stage. When the gods cross the rainbow bridge into Valhalla at the opera’s end, they seem to ascend vertically up a shimmering panel of lights.
If anything, Lepage exercises directorial restraint in the service of the composer’s mythological ambience. He allows Wagner’s laconic stage conversations to drag on without distraction and reserves his best effects for decisive moments. Gods, giants, and dwarves wear costumes based on the original 1876 designs for Wagner’s festival theater at Bayreuth. James Levine, conducting his twenty-first Ring cycle, leads the Met orchestra brilliantly. The second opera in the cycle, The Valkyrie, follows in spring 2011; the cycle’s last two operas will appear in the 2011–2012 season.
It is noteworthy, though, that the Met’s program gives first billing to the production’s designers—Lepage and his five assistants—and not to the singers. In past generations the Met promoted singers and conductors; now it advertises the special effects. Gone are the days when the house sold out for a Kirsten Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson; the buzz in the media and the line at the box office today come from the visual rather than the auditory part of the spectacle.
Wagner’s power comes, first of all, from his music, but we have lost the capacity to hear it the way Baudelaire and Mahler did. And our inability to hear Wagner’s music constitutes a lacuna in our understanding of the spiritual condition of the West. Despite Wagner’s reputation for compositional complexity, his musical tricks can be made transparent to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of music. In some ways, Wagner is simpler to analyze than the great classical composers. Because—as Nietzsche said—Wagner is a miniaturist who sets out to intensify the musical moment, his spells, at close inspection, can be isolated.
Popular literature and program notes describe Wagner’s compositional technique in terms of the so-called leitmotif, or leading motive—a musical theme associated with a particular concept or character. This is true, but trivial. This device has become such a commonplace among film composers that we cannot help hearing, in Darth Vader’s “DA-da-da-DA-DUM-de-DA-DUM-de-DA,” a caricature of the giants’ motive in Das Rheingold—which is exactly what it is. Today we hear Wagner the same way we hear the background music to Star Wars. The lampoon has displaced our perception of the original work. But there is much more to Wagner than simple musical figuration. His use of leitmotifs is not what makes his music so fascinating.
In an earlier essay (“Sacred Music, Sacred Time,” First Things, November 2009), I sought to show that goal-oriented tonal motion in Western music portrayed, within musical time, the salvific time of Christian eschatology. The musical moment served only to propel the composition toward a necessary conclusion. Wagner set out to destroy musical teleology, which he abhorred as the “tyranny of form.” As Nietzsche perceptively noted:
If we wish to admire him, we should observe him at work here: how he separates and distinguishes, how he arrives at small unities, and how he galvanizes them, accentuates them, and brings them into pre-eminence. But in this way he exhausts his strength; the rest is worthless. How paltry, awkward, and amateurish is his manner of “developing,” his attempt at combining incompatible parts.
That is what Rossini meant when he said that Wagner has beautiful moments and awful quarter-hours. (He also said that Lohengrin couldn’t be appreciated at first hearing, and that he had no intention of hearing it a second time.) Wagner had a gift, as well as an ideological purpose, for the intensification of the moment. If Goethe’s Faust bets the Devil that he can resist the impulse to hold onto the passing moment, Wagner dives headfirst into its black well. And if Faust argues that life itself depends on transcending the moment, Wagner’s sensuous embrace of the musical moment conjures a dramatic trajectory toward death.
Yet Wagner’s move contains an inherent difficulty: In my essay on sacred music, I quoted Augustine’s argument that the moment itself cannot be the object of perception, for it has no duration. “Endless melody” was Wagner’s rubric for his own style, in contradistinction to classical form. But if a melody has no end, it cannot have a middle—or, indeed, any inherent differentiation in time. It is like a picture without perspective, in which all objects hover in an undefined space. Nietzsche derided “endless melody” as “the complete degeneration of rhythmical feeling” and “chaos in the place of rhythm.” Too often, “endless melody” in Wagner simply means “interminable recitatives.” Nonetheless, Wagner accomplished something striking enough to provoke Baudelaire’s outburst of wonder. Wagner created the illusion of timelessness—that is, of a musical moment that transcends time—but he did so with the tools of classical composition, with the presumption that his listener expects to hear the long-term teleology of goal-oriented motion. Nietzsche called Wagner a “miniaturist,” but ironist would be a better term. To understand Wagner, we must put subjective impressions aside and get under the hood of his musical engine and apply the tools of voice-leading analysis to examine his scores. At the risk of spoiling the magic show, I will show later how a couple of Wagner’s best-known tricks are done.
Popular accounts emphasize Wagner’s harmonic daring. His musical impact, though, depends on the manipulation of time. Bob Dylan may have sung that the times were a-changin’, but Wagner announced that time itself had changed. His manifesto appears in Das Rheingold’s first five minutes, in the form of an E-flat major triad stretched over 140 measures. No previous composer ventured to elongate a single chord to the span of an operatic overture, allowing the musical moment to overswim its banks and drown our perception of harmonic change. Wagner’s prolongation is programmatic: It evokes the eternal Rhine as nature’s synecdoche. A profounder program, though, informs this stroke: The audience that heard the work’s premier in 1869 well understood that Wagner undertook to overthrow the ordering of time through tonality that Western composers had striven to create from the High Renaissance through Schumann and Brahms.
This elongated musical moment prepares the entrance of the three daughters of the Rhine who guard the subterranean abode of the river’s gold, a magical treasure that confers on its possessor the capacity for world domination. Wagner’s Rhine maidens swam on stage wires, if not with quite the grace of the high-tech aerialists of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production. We know, of course, that behind the visual magic are stagehands and winches, but we no longer can hear the creaks and wheezes of the musical machinery that casts Wagner’s spell in musical time.
Das Rheingold premiered in Munich in 1869 under the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who worshipped Wagner. The First Vatican Council was in session. A year later, Italy’s unification destroyed the Vatican’s territorial power, completing what Napoleon began: the dissolution of the old regime of Church and Empire. Wagner’s contemporaries could have no doubt as to the content of his allegory. To establish his rule on earth through the construction of the fortress Valhalla, Wotan must enlist hostile forces—the giants Fasolt and Fafner. In return for their service, he pledges the goddess Freia, gardener of the golden apples that keep the gods eternally young. The price of earthly power, in short, is to compromise immortality. As ransom for Freia, Wotan steals the Rhine’s golden treasure from the Nibelung Alberich, the dwarf who earlier snatched it from the Rhine’s daughters. Monetary wealth from despoiled nature allows the gods brief respite, but the gold itself is cursed.
The old order of the gods rested on the strength of treaties engraved on the spear by which Wotan rules the world. Entangled in his own web, Wotan cannot oppose the newly empowered giants. He requires heroes who will do so in his stead and so mates with the earth goddess Erda. She bears him the Valkyries, who bring dead heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla. Wotan also fathers the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde by a mortal woman. Their incestuous love is the subject of the second Ring opera, The Valkyrie. Wotan’s consort, Fricka, the guardian of the laws of hearth and home, persuades the reluctant Wotan to kill Siegmund and strip his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde, of her immortality. Brünnhilde is left asleep on a rock enveloped by magic fire, where her nephew Siegfried will awaken her in the third opera of the Ring series. Sieglinde flees into the forest, where she will die giving birth to Siegfried. Siegfried later will challenge Wotan and shatter his spear, ending the old order.
That the old regime of throne and altar had fallen, Wagner’s generation could have had no doubt. Wagner told them to celebrate rather than mourn its demise, for in the Twilight of the Gods their impulses would be freed from the fetters of the law. As Nietzsche explained:
Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? From “old contracts,” he replied, as all revolutionary ideologists have done. In plain English: from customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests. “How can one get rid of the evil in this world? How can one get rid of ancient society?” Only by declaring war against contracts (traditions, morality). This Siegfried does.
Considered in the context of the subsequent National Socialist embrace of Wagner’s music and his family’s friendship with Adolf Hitler, Wagner’s use of pagan materials supports the common view that he was, like the Nazis, a neopagan. Wagner’s influence on Adolf Hitler can be exaggerated. (Hitler preferred Bruckner to both Wagner and Beethoven and took the idea of a “Twilight of the Gods” rather personally.) Still, Wagner provided much of the Third Reich’s background music, and not without an underlying affinity. Very little distinguishes Siegfried, who is too impulsive to pay attention to rules, from Parsifal—the protagonist of Wagner’s last opera—who is too innocent to understand them. For Wagner, Siegfried—who will be murdered by a scheming Nibelung, with a spear thrust in the back—was as much a Christ figure as Parsifal. If the Germans, in Franz Rosenzweig’s bon mot, could not tell Christ from Siegfried, it is because Wagner deliberately conflated the two.
Wagner, to be sure, was no Christian; he saw Christian doctrine as an allegory of an “ineffable divine truth” that underlay its “allegory.” As he wrote in his 1880 essay “Religion and Art”:
The very shape of the Divine had presented itself in anthropomorphic guise; it was the body of the quintessence of all-pitying Love, stretched out upon the cross of pain and suffering. A—symbol?—beckoning to the highest pity, to worship of suffering, to imitation of this breaking of all self-seeking Will. . . . In this, and in its effect upon the human heart, lies all the spell whereby the Church soon made the Greco-Roman world her own.
The trouble with Christianity, Wagner maintained, was its Jewish foundation:
What was bound to prove [the Church’s] ruin, and lead at last to the ever louder “Atheism” of our day, was the tyrant-prompted thought of tracing back this Godliness upon the cross to the Jewish “Creator of heaven and earth,” a wrathful God of Punishment who seemed to promise greater power than the self-offering, all-loving Savior of the Poor.
And he repeated the canard that the “Galilean” Jesus was not Jewish to begin with. “The popes knew well what they were doing,” he wrote, “when they withdrew the Bible from the Folk; for the Old Testament in particular, so bound up with the New, might distort the pure idea of Christ to such a point that any nonsense and every deed of violence could claim its sanction. . . . We must view it as a grave misfortune that Luther had no other weapon of authority against the degenerate Roman Church, than just this Bible.”
Wagner’s native habitat is not Teutonic paganism so much as the murky medieval frontier through which the newly Christianized Germans passed during the High Middle Ages. His main sources are twelfth-to-fourteenth-century epics that blend Christian content and pagan legend: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s thirteenth-century Grail poem Parzifal, which provided the material for both Parsifal and Lohengrin; the thirteenth-century Minnesinger Tannhäuser; the twelfth-century legend (in several versions) of Tristan and Iseult; and the Nibelungenlied itself, a half-Christianized redaction in Middle High German of eighth-century pagan legends. If Wagner himself was not quite a premature Nazi, he remains a horrible affirmation of Franz Rosenzweig’s claim that Christianity, once severed from its Jewish roots, would revert rapidly to paganism.
Wagner’s first anti-Jewish screed, the 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music,” claimed that Jews could imitate but never create. Given Wagner’s debt to Jewish musicians and writers, this was particularly twisted. In his first opera, Rienzi, Wagner emulated the work of the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, who in 1841 helped Wagner stage the premiere in Dresden. Wagner reserved especially venomous words for Heinrich Heine, from whose novella From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski Wagner copied the scenario for The Flying Dutchman, the first entry in the “Wagnerian” canon. Wagner also drew on a Heine ballad for his next opera, Tannhäuser. When Jewish musicians suited his requirements, moreover, Wagner happily employed them, entrusting the first performance of Parsifal in 1882 to the conductor Hermann Levi.
Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism had many sources, but the main one was theological: He was a radical antinomian who wanted to isolate the supposedly pure impulse of Christian love from the foundation of Jewish law. That, as he maintains in “Religion and Art,” motivates his break from traditional form; that is, from the subordination of the local musical event to a teleological goal. Wagner’s ideological and compositional aims appear consistent, at least in principle. Nietzsche dismissed this as sour grapes and attributed Wagner’s rejection of form to mere incompetence, writing, “Wagner disguised his inability to create organic forms under the cloak of a principle . . . [and] constructed a ‘dramatic style’ out of what we should call the total inability to create any style whatsoever.”
But Nietzsche missed the point. Wagner was no Mendelssohn, but he could write competently in traditional forms, as in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. When it suited him, he could sustain long-range tonal motion. As Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter observe, a delayed resolution to D-flat major frames the conclusion of the Immolation Scene in The Twilight of the Gods. Wagner understood the tools of classical composition and parasitized them. He despised the spiritual purpose for which the classical composers first devised them, and he set out to subvert it. If classical composition ordered time in the spirit of Christian teleology, subordinating the individual moment to a long-range goal, Wagner set out to undermine the organic unity of classical form. “Endless melody” sets out to create the illusion of an endless moment, the musical embodiment of unrestrained impulse. On occasion, he brings it off.
A justly celebrated moment in the Ring cycle—Brünnhilde’s wakening on Siegfried’s kiss—illustrates Wagner’s technique. A preliminary word of explanation is required. In Western music, the “leading tone,” the seventh-scale step (the “si” in solfège), leads upward to the tonic by a half step. This upward resolution (typically in an inner voice) occurs in every full cadence. So basic is the seventh-to-eighth-step resolution in tonal music that any alteration of it has a musical meaning. Some striking examples are found in the appendix to Oswald Jonas’ Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker. When, for example, we hear the tonic eighth step descend to the seventh instead, we sense a move away from home. This has become a stock musical device to evoke nostalgia and was first employed, to my knowledge, in Franz Schubert’s 1826 song “In Spring” ( Im Frühling). Every American has heard this device countless times, in “Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and other popular songs. In “Over the Rainbow” the word “somewhere” is sung on the tonic and descends a half step to the seventh on the words “over the rainbow.” In the accompanying bass, the tonic chord shifts to the chord on the third-scale step, a minor chord that anchors, as it were, the poignant seventh and holds it back from rising naturally back to the tonic.
In the final act of the opera Siegfried, the third of the Ring series, the hero has broken his grandfather Wotan’s spear and braved the magic fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He never has seen a woman before, but he quickly determines that she is not a man and vaguely recollects his mother, who died in childbirth. He kisses her, and the orchestra wanders into a loud B-major seventh chord that is announced in a grand crescendo over two measures in which the tempo slows to a stop. The B-major seventh loudly resolves on what, at first hearing, seems to be its tonic, in the form of an E-minor chord that appears to be the harmonic goal of the whole passage (although Wagner leaves room for doubt by sounding the E-minor triad in the brass only, and in the middle register rather than the bass). The E-minor triad diminishes in volume (“very slowly,” according to the composer’s instruction), and its upper tone B resolves upward into C major. The tone B, which we first heard as an element of E minor, turns out to be the leading tone, or seventh step, in C major.
Retrospectively, we reinterpret the B3 as a leading tone in C major, which resolves upward in the expected way; the grandly announced E-minor chord that so beguiled us was not really a chord at all but, rather, temporary support for the passing motion of the seventh to the eighth step. We thought we were in one place and, to our surprise, find ourselves in another—a purely musical evocation of the passage from a sleeping to a waking state. It is, both literally and figuratively, “somewhere over the rainbow” in reverse: As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.
Brünnhilde’s awakening alters a well-worn compositional gesture to achieve a novel effect, which we might call retrospective reinterpretation. We hear backward from the eventual resolution to C major. Musical time has virtually stopped, for we stand transfixed at the juncture of two states: Brünnhilde’s somnolent divinity and her awakening into mortality. It is a musical effect that breaks up the longer-range motion of the work rather than propelling it forward.
The musical device has a programmatic meaning. Unlike Wotan, whose divine status paradoxically leaves him captive to destiny, the newly mortal Brünnhilde is in command of her own will. Her liberation from immortality sets in motion the events that, at the end of the final Ring opera, will burn Valhalla and destroy the gods. The Twilight of the Gods begins with a quotation from her awakening music—the E-minor chord revealed as passing motion to C major—and introduces the three Norns, the Fates of Teutonic myth, who spin a thread that breaks at the evocation of the heroic pair, Brünnhilde and Siegfried.
Wagner’s most studied gesture is the so-called “Tristan chord” sounded in the first phrase of the prelude of Tristan and Isolde. Modernist criticism hailed it as a harbinger of the disintegration of tonal harmony—a step in the music’s supposed progress toward the atonality of the twentieth century. That tendentious reading is still found in popular literature but has long since been rejected by music theorists. On the contrary, Wagner looks backward to the tonality of earlier generations, which he adapts for his own aesthetic purposes. The so-called “Tristan chord” appears in the music of the sixteenth-century composer Gesualdo da Venosa, as well as in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many others. William Rothstein has found precedents for the ambiguous statement at the outset of Tristan in the music of Purcell and Bach.
In fact, the “Tristan chord” it is not a chord to begin with but, rather, a metrical caesura on chromatic passing motion between chords, in the reading of mainstream scholarship. Example 2 below is adapted from the work of John Rothgeb and William Rothstein:
The simultaneity f2, b2, d#3, g#3 that comprises the “Tristan chord” connects tonic and dominant, and its chromatic tones belong to an altered II chord. It is quite an ordinary progression. Two features of Wagner’s move, though, produce an altered effect. The first is that he puts the ac-cent on the wrong syl-la-ble: that is, he places the metrical emphasis on passing motion rather than on the resolution. This presumably expresses longing and desire. The second is context: We do not immediately hear Wagner’s voice-leading as a chromaticized I–II–V progression (from tonic through the second scale step to the dominant) because its initial statement occurs with no evident harmonic direction. As with the apparent E-minor chord that prepares Brünnhilde’s awakening, we must reinterpret what we have heard in retrospect. Together, the caesura on passing motion and the absence of context bring musical time to a dead stop. The intensified moment triumphs over musical teleology.
The novelty in Wagner’s cleverest moments, therefore, does not stem from harmonic innovation—he resorts to well-worn devices of classical composition—but, rather, from temporal manipulation. Wagner takes for granted that his audience expects the classical resolution of voice-leading tension and will reinterpret his initially ambiguous material after the fact within the framework of classical expectations. But that raises a paradox: Wagner’s shift away from goal-oriented motion to intensification of the moment deafens our ears to the expectations embedded in classical composition and ultimately ruins our ability to hear his manipulation of these expectations. In other words, Wagner’s aesthetic purpose is at war with his methods. Once we are conditioned to hear music as a succession of moments rather than as a journey to a goal, we lose the capacity for retrospective reinterpretation, for such reinterpretation presumes a set of expectations conditioned by classical form in the first place. Despite his dependence on classical methods, Wagner’s new temporal aesthetic weakened the capacity of later musical audiences to hear classical music. As Sir Thomas Beecham joked, people really don’t like music; they just like the way it sounds.
This is as good as Wagner gets. Many of the moments for which audiences wait through the snail’s pace of plot advancement—the entrance of the gods into Valhalla in Rheingold, the Magic Fire music in Valkyrie, Siegfried’s Forging Song in the eponymous opera—do not rise much above the more vivid moments in the French grand opera that Wagner despised. Stage action freezes for long intervals, for example, in the second act of Valkyrie, when Wotan rehearses the plot of the Ring to Brünnhilde for a full quarter hour. (In 1967, watching with binoculars from the top of the Metropolitan Opera’s Family Circle, I clearly saw the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde covertly sipping a bottle of Tuborg while Thomas Stewart as Wotan worked through his monologue.) But Wagner’s best is very good indeed, evoking through the intensified musical moment the all-encompassing passion of pure impulse.
Wagner was more than a musician. He was the prophet of a new artistic cult, a self-styled poet and dramatist who believed that his “totalizing work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) would replace Europe’s enervated religion. His new temporal aesthetic served a larger goal: the liberation of impulse from the bonds of convention. Wagner’s compositional approach coheres with his writings on music, which bristle with antinomian attacks on the tyranny of musical form. He associates classical form with the tyranny of convention and the despised biblical God.
“Wagner’s heroines, once they have been divested of their heroic husks, are indistinguishable from Madame Bovary,” Nietzsche sniffed. The impassioned impulse that breaks through convention sets a trajectory toward death. The soul burns out when it stakes everything on the impulse of a moment. Wagner’s women are the mythological first cousins of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, and their sisters in late-nineteenth-century literature. All of Wagner’s women except Mastersingers’ harmless Eva die for love. Senta in The Flying Dutchman flings herself from a cliff to prove herself “faithful unto death” to lift the curse. Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) dies of grief over her knight’s obsession with Venus. Elsa drops dead when Lohengrin leaves her. Isolde sings the Liebestod and expires “in highest pleasure” over Tristan’s corpse. Sieglinde dies in childbirth. Brünnhilde drives her horse onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre to burn alongside him. Kundry falls lifeless when Parsifal lifts the curse that turned her into a satanic temptress. The opera’s not over ’til the fat lady dies.
But Wagner gives us much more than Madame Bovary with a Hollywood score or, rather, the master template for the best scores Hollywood would invent. He gives us not Emma Bovary as provincial adulteress and spendthrift, but Emma Bovary as co-redemptrix, dying not of poison but of an erotic elixir, not to please her vanity but to save humankind (or at least its male half) from the oppressive covenant of the Jewish God. Flaubert exposed Emma’s shallowness and made her death grotesque; Tolstoy empathized with Anna Karenina as a sacrifice on the altar of tolerance. In their passion and death, by contrast, Wagner’s women exalt erotic indulgence to the status of cosmic principle, buoyed by a music that purports to extend the supreme moment into an eternity—what the Wagnerite Baudelaire first named the “oceanic feeling.” Unlike Flaubert or Tolstoy, Wagner flatters his audience with the conceit that their libidinous impulses resonate with the Will of the World, and that their petty passions have the same cosmic significance as Isolde’s or Kundry’s.
That was the debut of the culture of death. What made Wagner his century’s most influential artist was not merely that he portrayed as inevitable and even desirable the fall of the old order but that through his music he turned the plunge into the abyss into an intimate, existential experience—a moment of unbounded bliss, a redemptive sacrifice that restores meaning to the alienated lives of the orphans of traditional society. On the ruins of the old religion of throne and altar he built a new religion of impulse: Brünnhilde becomes Siegfried’s co-redemptrix in Wagner’s heretical Christianity.
And that is why (as Bernard Shaw said) Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. There really are a few moments worth the painful wait, when Wagner’s application of classical technique yields the illusion of timelessness. Because we are mortal (as I argued in “Sacred Music, Sacred Time”), and our time on earth is limited, a transformation of our perception of the nature of time bears directly on our deepest emotions—those associated with the inevitability of our death. That, I think, is what Schopenhauer tried to get at when he argued that “music does not express this or that particular and definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, horror, sorrow, gaiety, merriment, or peace of mind, but joy, pain, horror, sorrow, gaiety, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without any accessories, and so also without the motives for them.” As I showed in the earlier essay, Western composers altered the pace of musical time to depict the irruption of the sacred into the temporal realm. Wagner (as in the “Brünnhilde’s awakening” example) performs this move in reverse, attempting to pack the sacred back into the temporal.
Without his musical box of tricks, Wagner would have been another easily forgotten guru—a premature New Ager, a Teutonic Joseph Campbell. His music is what still draws spirit-starved listeners into opera houses, as they seek in Wagner what they do not find in the old religion; that is, a supposed cosmic validation of their own impulsiveness. They are rewarded with what appear to be a few moments in which time itself is suspended, and they, like Isolde, “sink and drown unconscious in the world-breath’s wafting All, in highest pleasure.” Or at least they persuade themselves that they have done so. It’s less harmful than Emma Bovary’s arsenic, and you can do it again next season. In return for such moments, Wagner’s listeners forgive him a myriad of musical sins—the interminable recitatives and the stock grand-opera gestures.
Wagner’s tomb in Bayreuth bears the inscription Erlösung dem Erlöser: “Redemption to the redeemer.” The chorus hails Parsifal with these words at the opera’s conclusion, implying that the hero has redeemed Christ himself just as Wagner promised to redeem Christianity through art: “One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.” To this Nietzsche replied, “If Wagner were a Christian, then Liszt was perhaps a Father of the Church. The need for salvation, the quintessence of all Christian needs, has nothing in common with such clowns.”
To the Wagnerians, though, Wagner himself was the redeemer—a redeemer who, in turn, needed redemption from his audience, by way of suspension of disbelief in his musical magic show.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things.