richard wagner and war -- 12/4/20

Today's selection -- from Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross. Richard Wagner had long been one of Europe’s most revered composers, but much of his work evoked a military spirit. So when World War I broke out, Wagner was embraced as an icon of the German war effort, and fell from grace in other European countries:

"In his 1880 essay 'Religion and Art,' Wagner wondered whether bombs, torpedoes, and other military technologies would bring about the end of the world: 'One could imagine that all of this -- art, science, bravery and honor, life and possessions -- could blow up through an unpredict­able mistake.' It was a vague prophecy of the mass devastation wrought by twentieth-century war. That some of this devastation was done in his name points to the contradiction that has dwelled at the heart of Wagnerism al­most from the beginning. Despite the composer's intermittent hostility to the state and his late-period drift toward pacifism, his music often fueled a bellicose mood and, especially in Germany, became a psychological weapon.

"When war broke out, German-speaking Wagnerites were already mo­bilized in spirit. In 1911, Reinhold von Lichtenberg had let it be known that the Ring represented the 'victorious struggle of the Germanic ideal against foreign, therefore enemy powers.' Lichtenberg also contentedly noted that foreigners were no longer in the majority in Bayreuth -- indeed, that German attendees counted for 88 percent. Once hostilities began, Wagner became part of the national arsenal. In the French town of Saint­-Quentin, which German forces seized in the first weeks of their lightning assault on the Western Front, a commemorative concert was held for sol­diers in the local basilica, and a military newspaper reported that a Parsifal excerpt on the organ was the highlight: 'The wonderful acoustics of high Gothic spaces, the sanctified music of the noblest motifs and then the oc­casional dull thump of the distant guns. Gripping! We were all shaken to our core. The events of world history outside were thrust into the holiness of the moment. Here the sounds of the glorification of the pure fool, out there the deeds of the pure sword of the Germans.' In August 1914, the illustrated magazine Kladderadatsch captioned a wild-eyed Siegfried with the text 'Now the strong German spirit/ Has forged the old sword anew.' The next year, Richard Sternfeld, a conservative Jewish Wagnerite, pub­lished a pamphlet titled Richard Wagner and the Holy German War, which ended with a citation of Hans Sachs's 'Habt Acht!' and the words 'After the holy German war, holy German art -- God grant it!'

"Eventually, Wagner became part of military lingo. A defensive bulwark on the Western Front, constructed in 1916, was known as the Siegfried Line; another fortification was called the Wotan Line. In early 1917, when German troops retreated to the Siegfried Line and manned it, they did so under the rubric Operation Alberich. The retreat entailed the razing of houses, the destruction of railways and roads, the poisoning of wells, and the setting of mines and booby traps -- an appropriation of Nibelung ma­levolence in the service of the German cause. In the summer of 1918, Rup­precht's group was preparing a counteroffensive named Plan Hagen, which never went into effect. The German-Jewish industrialist Walther Rathe­nau, in a 1918 tract titled To Germany's Youth, gave an acidulous summary of the reigning mentality: 'There is always someone -- Lohengrin, Wal­ther, Siegfried, Wotan -- who can do everything and beat everyone, who can redeem suffering virtue, punish vice, and bring universal salvation, in a sweeping pose, with fanfares, lighting effects, and scenery.'

"Back in Bayreuth, Houston Stewart Chamberlain issued essays and pamphlets titled 'The German Love of Peace,' 'German Freedom,' 'Ger­many as Leading World Power,' 'Democratic Delusion,' and 'Hammer or Anvil.' The polemics displayed unrelenting hostility not only toward the foreign enemy but also toward domestic threats of cosmopolitanism, democracy, journalism, and Jewishness. Wilhelm II remained a fervent follower, writing to Chamberlain that he read the essays with 'heart­pounding enthusiasm.' In a January 1917 letter, the Kaiser described the war as a 'struggle between 2 Weltanschauungen: the Teutonic-German, for custom, right, loyalty and faith, true humanity, truth and genuine freedom, against the Anglo-Saxon, the worship of Mammon, the power of money, pleasure, land-grabbing, lies, betrayal, deceit, and, not least, treacherous assassination!' One worldview must win, Wilhelm said, and the other must 'go under' -- a presumably inadvertent echo of Wagner's for­bidding formula, der Untergang.

"In France, Wagner again fell from grace, his name once more synonymous with German aggression. Cartoonists spoofed the Kaiser by costuming him in Wagnerian poses -- for example, as Lohengrin riding a swan mo­torcar. In the fall of 1914, Camille Saint-Saens launched an anti-Wagner campaign on the front page of L'Écho de Paris, warning of a 'machine of war against French art.' Members of the right-wing Action Française joined the assault. Léon Daudet, who had earlier attacked Wagnerism as a stealth invasion incited by Jews, considered the Great. War the antidote to the 'German poison' that Wagner had helped to inject into the French bloodstream. Pierre Lasserre insinuated that the composer was of Jewish descent. Charles Maurras, the chief figure of the Action Francaise, shuddered at the memory of the Revue wagnérienne and declared that 'the state must de-Germanicize itself,' Maurras's reference to 'intellectual police' carrying out this cleansing could be taken literally: Louis Aragon recalled gendarmes entering apartments to ask residents to stop playing Wagner."



Alex Ross


Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2020 by Alex Ross


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