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The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by…

The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (2000)

by Bryan Magee

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    The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music by Barry Millington (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Comprehensive collections of essays by leading Wagnerian authorities on every aspect of Wagner's life, times and works. Well written, scholarly, sensible, perceptive.

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Bryan Magee

Wagner and Philosophy

Penguin, Paperback, 2001.

8vo. xi+397 pp.

First published, 2000.


List of Illustrations

Chapter 1: First the Music
Chapter 2: Wagner as a Young German
Chapter 3: Wagner the left-wing revolutionary
Chapter 4: Wagner, Feuerbach and the future
Chapter 5: Wagner's misleading reputation
Chapter 6: Opera as Greek drama
Chapter 7: Some of The Ring's leading ideas
Chapter 8: Wagner's discovery of Schopenhauer
Chapter 9: The philosophy of Schopenhauer
Chapter 10: Wagner re-evaluates his values
Chapter 11: The turn
Chapter 12: Metaphysics as music
Chapter 13: Philosophy as opera
Chapter 14: Music as drama
Chapter 15: First the orchestra
Chapter 16: The crowning achievement
Chapter 17: Wagner and Nietzsche
Appendix: Wagner's anti-semitism



Having read and been completely fascinated by Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner (1988), I have naturally picked up this book with great expectations. On the whole, Wagner and Philosophy did live up to them. The book is certainly compelling and well worth reading (and re-reading, for that matter), but it does have certain flaws that are more than negligible. Considering that it is almost four times longer than the pithy and concise Aspects of Wagner, which is already a classic in the Wagnerian literature, it would be an exaggeration to say that Wagner and Philosophy is equally perceptive and insightful, much less that it is four times more so. Let me try to explain that seeming paradox.

First the good things about Wagner and Philosophy.

The book is first and foremost quite comprehensive and explores an area in Wagnerology which is often overlooked by Wagnerians who fancy themselves writers. All his life Richard Wagner was absorbed in philosophy, contemplating many a work of the most influential philosophical minds of the nineteenth century, even more so because many of them were his contemporaries. Bryan Magee starts from Wagner's politically mischievous youth, with its ardent socialist inclinations, and then goes on to explain convincingly how the great composer came to reject politics and even the whole world he lived in. I daresay pretty much every significant philosophical teaching Wagner might ever have come into contact with is examined expertly by Mr Magee: from Marx, Engels and Feuerbach until the overwhelming and livelong fascination with Schopenhauer, apparently the single most powerful influence by any philosopher Wagner ever experienced. The author makes a strong case about the latter and so does he about Nietzsche where, rather surprisingly to some perhaps, he concludes firmly that the great philosopher felt, nay even suffered from, Wagner's influence virtually all his life, whereas in none of the great composer's works is any influence of Nitzsche's philosophy to be perceived.

Since Bryan Magee is quite popular with his indefatigable attempts to popularize so unpopular a subject as philosophy, and has written a number of books with that purpose, as one might expect reading Wagner and Philosophy requires absolutely no philosophical background whatsoever. Mr Magee takes the trouble to give brief but quite sufficient overview of the great philosophers' philosophies he's dealing with in relation to Wagner. Indeed, the succinct and lucid reviews of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche make a fascinating read and certainly are an excellent recommendation to have a look at some other books by the same author.

Wagner's life as well as his early and middle period works are discussed perceptively but rather perfunctorily, yet this is to be expected since they all have little to do with philosophy. But Mr Magee has done an excellent job with Wagner's last works - Tristan, Die Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen (to a lesser extent) and Parsifal - tracing meticulously how Wagner's philosophical outlook is reflected into his libretti, dramatic plots, music, etc. In addition, excellent brief synopses with extensive background of the libretto are provided for all but The Ring, and these are extremely helpful if - like myself - you're a Wagnerian neophyte still making the first tentative steps into the worlds of his late music dramas. Mr Magee's analysis of Parsifal is especially compelling and enlightening, even if one doesn't share his opinion about this music drama being the ''crowning achievement'' in Wagner's oeuvre.

Last but not least, the writing style of Bryan Magee is an excellent combination of lucidity, eloquence and insight. Considering the complexity of both matters - Wagner's music dramas and philosophy in general - more often than not I have found the book surprisingly absorbing.

For my own part, though, the best part of Wagner and Philosophy is the Appendix, titled simply ''Wagner's anti-Semitism''. Of all controversial issues that have surrounded, still surround and will doubtless continue to surround Wagner's unique personality, his fierce, odious and repellent anti-Semitism is surely the most controversial of all. But as Mr Magee starts this brilliant 37-pages-long Appendix:

The repellent nature of Wagner's anti-semitism is not a licence to misrepresent it.

Quite right. I wonder why so very few people - Wagnerian scholars especially - manage to comprehend that. After the lot of incredible nonsense I have read (most notably in the writings of Charles Osborne and Barry Millington) about Wagner and his allegedly crucial role in Hitler's life, the Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, this appendix by Bryan Magee was a most welcome gulp of fresh and cool air. He makes no attempt to defend Wagner's racist views - no one in his right mind would do such a thing - and he states in the beginning that he finds them odious. But, all the same, he wants to understand, not to condemn. So in less than 40 pages Bryan Magee completely demolishes all the hokum that was spilt over Wagner, his anti-Semitism and the putative role of both in the Nazi ideology.

Firstly, Mr Magee starts with giving very plausible and coherent reasons about this phenomenon which startled people (including those closest to Wagner) even in those largely anti-Semitic times. Again, there is no question of excusing or condoning Wagner's views; it's a matter of understanding what stands behind them. Mr Magee argues persuasively that our modern perception of anti-Semitism is inevitably coloured by the Holocaust - certainly the most horrible anti-Semitic crime in the history of mankind - and therefore we are unable to judge with cool heads anti-Semitism that occurred half a century before that.

Secondly, and infinitely more importantly, Mr Magee goes into great detail to show that Hitler's anti-Semitism was of an entirely different nature than Wagner's. Moreover, the good old Adolf was most probably the only Nazi of any importance who was an ardent admirer of Wagner, nor was his music given any special priority in Nazi Germany or used for any propaganda purposes as often stated by pseudo-historians. Yes, Hitler really was a great fan of Wagner. So what? So were many a Jewish musician, some of them remarkably talented and indeed among Wagner's chief promoters. One may start with Herman Levi who conducted the world premiere of Parsifal in 1882 and finish with Daniel Barenboim who dared break the idiotic Wagner taboo in Israel well over a century later.

Whatever faults Richard Wagner might have had (indeed, he did have many) he cannot be, and must not be, held responsible for things that happened a good many years after his death; indeed, the Nazi party took the helm in Germany exactly half a century after Wagner had passed away, not to mention that Hitler at that time was not even born. To speculate that Wagner would have been pleased with Hitler's adulation and even that he would probably have approved of the ''final solution'' is, yet again, a farrago of nonsense far removed from anything that could safely be called scholarship. All that such opinions and writings show is, to put it mildly, an astonishing lack of common sense and even more severe incapacity for rational analysis - and that certainly shouldn't be the case when one considers oneself a scholar and writes books about one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Mr Magee finely and with his usual candour says that he doesn't believe in guilt by association. Neither do I.

It was rather unfortunate for Wagner's posthumous reputation that his family developed as one of the most ardent Nazi supporters of all time. The main heroine in this story appears to have been the English-born Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of the composer for she was married to his son, Siegfried. After the latter died in 1930, Winifred turned Bayreuth into a Nazi shrine where Der Führer was always most welcome. Here Bryan Magee comes with a really truly incredible story which he claims to have heard personally from Frau Wagner's lips; not at all impossible since Winifred lived well after the Second World War and until the end of her life remained a fierce Nazi obsessed with hero worship for Hitler.

The amazing story that she candidly related to Bryan Magee is that she was in love with Adolf and even, after Siegfried's death, pressed him several times to marry her. Apparently, Winifred first met the future Führer back in the early 1920s, and in 1923 while he was in jail she probably even provided him with stationery on which he wrote his autobiography Mein Kampf. Long after his death Winifred remained not only anti-Semitic, but convinced that Adolf Hitler was the best solution for Germany - and for herself. The story is enthralling all right but the pertinent question is the following: what on earth has all this to do with Richard Wagner? That's precisely the point: nothing at all!

There is of course much more in Wagner and Philosophy than that Appendix, brilliantly perceptive and penetrating as it is, but there are also some defects and unpleasant tendencies that, I have to admit, are not really a big deal but which I cannot pass over without few remarks.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Bryan Magee is that he is sometimes inclined to gushing. That's perhaps not entirely fair since it implies a certain amount of insincerity and, whatever his faults might be, Mr Magee is always absolutely honest with his readers. For instance, he tells us frankly that it so happens that he doesn't believe in God and that his first book, a collection of poems about Christ and the Crucifixion, though certainly written with all possible sincerity, is now a considerable embarrassment to him. All the same, sometimes Mr Magee does seem to lose his cool head and indeed gets lost into something very much like adulation for Richard Wagner. It would certainly have been nice if the superlative had been used somewhat more sparingly. I wonder if Bryan Magee didn't become a victim of the so called Wagnerolatry of which he wrote so perceptively in Aspects of Wagner. Nobody of course disputes Wagner's greatness as composer and dramatist, but Mr Magee's constant harping on it does get a tad tedious. After all, Wagner was by far not the only great artist and tremendous genius who ever lived, much less the only great composer after whom the music was never the same - even in the nineteenth century alone.

Another caveat is that Mr Magee is somewhat prone to repetition and that too might well become boring. His unusually clear, concise and lucid exposition of great philosophers' ideas is truly fascinating, but his repeating certain aspects several times seems almost like insulting the memory and the mental capacity of his readers. Some of his repetitions are also highly questionable, for example his view on the relationship between the music, the singing and the text of Wagner's music dramas. Mr Magee's point about the leading role of the music in an opera is a shrewd one, if obvious but indeed surprisingly seldom given credit by other authors; his challenge to anybody to name one opera that has remained in the repertory, not because of its music, but because of its libretto is not likely to be faced even in the remote future. But when he comes to Wagner's music dramas he repeats again and again how much more important than the singers the orchestra is. That seems to me not so sensible a view.

Take for example Tristan und Isolde, one of most sensuous and erotic scores ever composed, or so they say. But would they say the same were it not set on a text that deals with one of the most passionate love stories ever conceived? I don't think so. Music in itself cannot represent such things as ''passion'' or ''love'' or ''lust'' or whatever you like; it cannot be ''sensuous'' or ''erotic'', either - it is just called so because it is composed to a very sensuous and erotic libretto. I believe that if a number of people are put to test in which to recognise such characteristics as ''sensuous'' or ''erotic'' in unknown works of art, their answers would be far more consistent with written texts than with instrumental music. Personally, I have to admit that I do prefer the famous "Isoldes Liebestod" not as originally sung in the opera house but in the instrumental arrangement for the concert hall. But I have no intention to denigrate the role of the libretto only because of this. Not so Mr Magee who seems to have little respect for Wagner's texts thinking that they are mere vehicles for the action but the real psychological insight lies predominantly in the orchestra. Much as I admire Wagner's outstanding ability to use his orchestra for depicting mental states and conflicts, I take issue with such a view. Music may well be the leading part, but the text is also of crucial importance. Perhaps in no other opera composer are these two components developed as such an organic whole.

Another telling, and exasperating, example for Mr Magee's disregard for Wagner's texts is his referring to the so called ''Wotan's Farewell'', the finale of Die Walküre and most certainly one of the most beautiful opera scenes ever composed. Mr Magee tells us that all culminations happen in the orchestra and that may well be true - from his point of view. But for me it is almost a crime to dismiss the immensely affecting and poignant words of Wotan; his heartrending cries ''Leb wohl'', his passionate declaration of the love he feels for his daughter, his gentle ''lullaby'' before closing her eyes, his commanding presence when summons Loge, and finally his unforgettable magic spell:

Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet,
durchreite das Feuer nie!

All this - when sung properly! - is no less mind-blowing an experience than the glorious climaxes in the orchestra. Indeed, both perfectly complement each other. The best proof for that is the instrumental version of ''Wotan's Farewell'' which has often been recorded. It sounds plain and dull, not nearly as magnificent as the one with the vocal part.

Having mentioned Tristan, I am reminded of another unfortunate tendency in Wagner and Philosophy, namely the desire of Bryan Magee to explain everything in Wagner's mature music dramas only through philosophical influence, mostly Schopenhauerian. Well, that doesn't hold good either. Pretty much every Wagnerian scholar agrees that Wagner's affair (or at least passionate fantasies for such) with Mathilde Wessedonck was a critical factor in the composition of Tristan. Not so Bryan, who sees everything through the lens of Schopenhauer and his profound effect on Wagner. Well, nobody wants to downplay that influence, but Wagner certainly had a good many other experiences in his life, many of them highly emotional, and they must surely have had a significant impact on his works. Mr Magee is indignant with writers who, in his opinion, underestimate the influence of Schopenhauer over Wagner, but it seems it has never occurred to him that he might be doing the opposite - overestimating the influence of philosophy on Wagner by almost totally neglecting many other experiences Wagner had in the course of his quite eventful life.

I cannot but think that in the 12 years that separate Aspects of Wagner from Wagner and Philosophy, Mr Magee's style has to some extent deteriorated, at least in terms of writing about Wagner. For all lucidity and succinctness, the wonderful brevity of the earlier book is missing. One striking example is the chapter about Nietzsche where Mr Magee goes into intolerable detail about the relationship between both men; he also wastes far too much time with refutation of Nietzsche's positively spiteful, not to say inane, late ''criticism'' of Wagner.

On the whole, repetitions abound, occasionally certain obtuseness obscures the meaning, perhaps not so unnatural when such naturally abstruse matter as philosophy is the main subject. This tendency reaches its peak when Mr Magee's language becomes almost incomprehensible, seemingly contradictory and even spiced up with shameful slights on other composers. It seldom happens but it does happen. The following passage, which discusses the relationship between the words and the music in Das Rheingold, will illustrate exactly what I mean:

At every level, then, even down to natural pauses which became short musical rests, Wagner conjured the music out of the words. It is all skilfully done - and yet somehow it remains, for the most part, earthbound. The melody, tied as it is to the text syllable by syllable, scarcely ever takes wing, scarcely ever soars. If all Wagner's works had exhibited the same level of purely musical inspiration we should have regarded him as a composer of something like a calibre of Liszt.

Now that does look like a contradiction to me: ''music out of the words'' on the one hand, and ''purely musical inspiration'' on the other. Mr Magee has nicely summarised why Das Rheingold is by far the least popular part of The Ring by placing it in the right historical context, namely that it was Wagner's first mature music drama, a largely experimental work in its constant striving for equal role of the text and the music. The problem with the inspiration for Das Rheingold is precisely that it was not at all musical, much less purely so, but it was firmly rooted in the text attempting something that Wagner soon came to realise was not possible.

As for the nasty slight on Liszt, it is so preposterous that it hardly deserves comment, but as an unabashed Lisztian it is something I cannot forgive - and something, indeed, that strongly questions Mr Magee's point of view, for it obviously is very limited in scope.

Now, Bryan, here you really have not the remotest idea what you are writing about. If there is one composer among the Romantics who is at least equal in genius to Wagner (figuratively speaking of course, for these things really cannot be compared), this is Franz Liszt. If Wagner created solely by himself the music drama in the theatre, so did Liszt with the symphonic poem in the concert hall. Just like Wagner, and often even before him, Liszt explored the endless metamorphosis of a single theme, new harmonies and new orchestral effects; not to mention the tremendous importance of Liszt in the history of piano playing and composition.

As for the ''purely musical inspiration'', such thing hardly ever existed with Liszt's compositions - almost all of them are ''program music''. Liszt too was inspired by words, only in his case they were not his but those of Byron, Hugo, Goethe and Shakespeare, to name but a few; in addition many of his compositions were stimulated by painting, sculpture, nature and mythology. In relation to his program music Liszt always insisted that the program is just a hint for the listener and that he never used music as descriptive art but wanted rather to create a special mood and impression. If today Liszt is less popular than Wagner, this is simply because his music - especially his symphonic and choral works - are vastly neglected. They are simply not given the chance of enough fine performances and recordings to survive (or not) with the public.


Despite some distinctly warped views, lack of clarity here and there, unpleasant smell of prejudices from time to time, Bryan Magee's Wagner and Philosophy is a fine book and a must read for every serious Wagnerian. It is full of penetrating insights about a man who was not just one of the greatest composers in the history of music, but also a complex and fascinating personality - anti-semitism, megalomania, egotism and philandering notwithstanding. For the most part Mr Magee's perceptive remarks about that very personality, how it was formed and how it changed through the years, are written with admirable succinctness and lucidity, as well as with strong and convincing arguments. It is not without interest that the book tells us almost as much for Bryan Magee himself. He must be a remarkable man; probably he is a writer whose complete output should be investigated more closely. Certainly he is man I should like to have a drink and a long (friendly) chat with.

P. S. One purely technical drawback is that the book lacks any bibliography whatsoever. To Mr Magee's credit, he always indicates the source of his quotes giving the title, the author and often even the page number. Therefore it seems even stranger that he didn't take the trouble to compile a nice bibliography in which publishers and years of publishing, why not a few words about the contents as well, might have been added. Giving the page numbers in the absence of any bibliography is indeed strange since if there is more than one edition of the book in question (which is very likely), it is pretty pointless to give pages without the exact edition. A minor issue of course, but it does cast additional shadow on the author's integrity. Presumably Mr Magee considers himself a serious scholar with an utmost respect for original sources. Well, he might just as well have listed them accurately. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Apr 2, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080507189X, Paperback)

Richard Wagner's devotees have ranged from the subtlest minds (Proust) to the most brutal (Hitler). The enduring fascination with his works arises not only from his singular fusion of musical innovation and theatrical daring, but also from his largely overlooked engagement with the boldest investigations of modern philosophy. In this radically clarifying book, Bryan Magee traces Wagner's intellectual quests, from his youthful embrace of revolutionary socialism to the near-Buddhist resignation of his final years. Magee shows how abstract thought can permeate music and stimulate creations of great power and beauty. And he unflinchingly confronts the Wagner whose paranoia, egocentricity, and anti-Semitism are as repugnant as his achievements are glorious.

At once a biography of the composer, an overview of his times, and an exploration of the intellectual and technical aspects of music, Magee's lucid study offers the best explanation of W. H. Auden's judgment that Wagner, for all his notoriety, was "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:12 -0400)

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