With many of the key figures of modernity, popular beliefs about them are seriously askew, sometimes at 180′ from the truth: so Nietzsche was neither anti Semitic, nor a nationalist; Freud didn’t say it was ‘all about sex’ etc; Marx wasn’t a proponent of a one party state etc etc. It is almost as if whatever the popular view is of these figures, the truth lies in the opposite direction.
With Wagner, though, the case is rather different: for a start, he was an antiSemite, and not just a bit, either: seriously so.
The mistake lies in thinking this has to seriously contaminate his art. It doesn’t. That’s not to say one couldn’t find it in there if you looked for it, since there’s no Chinese wall between life and art (and he’s not alone in that). When it came to the Jews, he certainly shared the outlook of many of his contemporaries – not that that excuses anything. On the other hand, if we are going to weed out all the artists who said, wrote or did things we regard as unacceptable, unethical or plain horrible, we will soon have whittled down our remaining artists and thinkers to a very short list indeed.
The impressive thing, I think, is how little a role the mean, the petty and the bigoted plays in his music. It’s hardly visible or audible at all. Wagner’s art is about the importance of love and compassion over power and money – and a lot else that is humane and life affirming. What it isn’t about is promoting hate. Whether it is the story of the Ring – and the way it destroys those that exchange love for power (in the form of gold, especially), the story of the Master-Singers and the search for a humane and progressive way of making art and living life, or Parsifal and the meaning of compassion, Wagner has a lot more to say than is commonly recognised by those who have only heard the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (a very unrepresentative example of his music).
The music! The music is utterly stunning in its beauty and depth. And no, it isn’t ‘bombastic’, either (another myth).Wagner the artist isn’t, somehow, simply the biography of the onetime actually existing Richard Wagner. It’s with that conflation that people so often get it wrong.
Listen to Wagner!