KPAC Blog
11:45 am
Wed May 22, 2013

200 Years Of Richard Wagner And The Will Of Music

Wagner's incredible and improbable success is one of the fairytale's of high art. The late Jacques Barzun referred to his position in later life as: "That of a Lord of all the arts."

Randy Anderson has rightly commented on his association with the highest circles of the intellect and art: De Gobineau, Nietzsche, Semper, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and later Liszt, as Wagner would wed Cosima, the pianist's daughter.

So how did all this happen?

Anderson rightly locates Wagner's intellectual and artistic pedigree with that of the strivers and not the prodigies. One of those who succeeded, in Nietzsche's terms, as the will to expression and power.

Nothing in the early Wagner gives any hint or idea that there will ever be anything remotely approaching his epic "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Wagner was a child of the lower middle classes, essentially self-taught and later an exiled revolutionary. Before his heaven-sent rescue by Ludwig of Bavaria he was in perpetual flight and unending despair.

Wagner was a very lucky man, indeed

With a little less luck, fewer friends (he owed everybody money) and anything less than the heroic stamina of genius, his fate would have probably been obscurity and poverty at best and prison at worse.

All of this loomed on Wagner before the letter from the fairy prince lifted him literally out of the gutter and into a castle, throwing him into the maddest art project of the musical nineteenth century - "Der Ring" - followed by the exquisite "Parsifal," which even his detractors admitted was sublime.

In his own lifetime he would be compared to Aeschylus and Shakespeare, which is not at all bad company.

The family legacy

Unlike Berlioz or even Beethoven, Wagner's legacy was as fatefully biological as artistic.

His descendants not only look like him, they even think like him. They are authors, painters, musicians and proponents and extenders of their illustrious ancestor's legacy.

The great Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the attached Wahnfried survived two world wars, fascist collaboration and direct bombing. It all lay still in direct control of the family with state support and global subscription - tickets are often available only by lottery.

It is this unlikely and glorious gift and story that we celebrate after 200 years. So what about the rest of it: adultery, lies, plagiarism, anti-Semitic rants, blatant racism, duplicity and egoistic extravagance that beggars the imagination?

After 200 years, I remember the words of Margaret Atwood when I asked her what she thought of Wagner: "The music is greater than the man, it just doesn't matter."

Not bad for a kid from Leipzig.