Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art 1933

Richard Wagner
(On the 50th Anniversary of His Death)

In connection with the 50th anniversary of his death the problem of Richard Wagner arises again and again to confront mankind.

However, it is now quite clear that this problem can by no means be solved from the point of view of “contemporary mankind,” for no such integral contemporary mankind exists. The question must be solved in a new way, since it concerns a re-evaluation of Wagner from the point of view of a victorious proletariat and the new socialist culture it is creating.

We shall try in this brief account to summarise our attitude towards this composer of rare and complex genius.


We speak often and justly of the hypnotising, enchanting power of Wagner’s music.

No other composer before Wagner had burst upon the listeners’ perception with such a cascade of sound, with such a broad river of harmony, with such poignant melodies. Wagner himself called his music an endless melody. This may be understood not only in the direct sense, i.e., in the sense of a continuously unrolling musical canvas, but in the sense that Wagner’s music seems to create an invisible magnetic field that extends throughout the universe, and penetrates to the very soul of the listener.

The thunder and clashing of his cymbals, his colossal ensembles, his unisons, which catch one up and carry one off – the entire well-planned whirlwind of sound is staggering. However, Wagner is nearly as powerful when he wants to be winning, when he creeps up to our subconscious unawares. Then he uses the most delicate of skeleton keys to make his way into the very depths of the human heart.

When they say that Wagner was, first and foremost, a man of iron will, that he craved for power above all, one cannot but agree. Indeed, music to him is like an assembly of spirits which he marshals and sends marching forward, to win millions of human souls for him.

However, Wagner’s music is not simply organised sound. It is not even emotions translated into sound. Nietzsche reproached Wagner for being, in all actuality, not a musician, but a mime, a man of the theatre. This desire to conquer his audience, to impress his own ideas upon it, to be its teacher, its leader, its prophet, was expressed through his active use of histrionics.

Wagner’s histrionic talent was truly magical. Indeed, a Wagnerian symphony is magnificent in itself in a concert performance, but it acquires its true significance only on the stage. I would like to note, however, that the stage perhaps cannot yet meet the demands Wagner placed upon it.

Thus, Tolstoi, when he wanted to ridicule the various conventions of the opera, speaks seemingly good-naturedly of the brightly painted men in cardboard armour who, instead of speaking, open their mouths wide and sing, of make-believe dragons and suchlike attributes of cheap puppet comedy.

Tolstoi is obviously wrong, since he is attempting to attack the conventionality of the theatre in general. It is still an open question as to what is more normal for a person experiencing great exultation, for an outstanding person caught up in great events – to speak, and perhaps lisp and stammer to boot, or to sing, to limp and stumble, as the majority of the petty bourgeois do in real life, or to dance. But Tolstoi is undoubtedly right when he points out the artistic squalor of the contemporary operatic stage as compared to Wagner’s grandiose ideas and the grandiose nature of his music.

However, the fact remains that Wagner’s music is unimaginable without action and words, which are at one with it.

It was under Wagner’s influence that Nietzsche wrote of the two elements of theatrics: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The music itself, the churning forces and passions, the dynamics and pathos is Dionysius. Then blue mists seem to rise from this churning; they condense into clouds and, finally, into human images that are essentially Apollonian. The musical idea is expressed in human shapes, emotions, thoughts, actions, words, relationships, fates, victories and defeats. Thus, tragedy and the theatre are born. Perhaps the most ideal listener and viewer of Wagner’s works is one who is quite familiar with the libretto and has perhaps caught two or three hints of Wagner’s vision in the mediocre production and can, by closing his eyes, truly see all the refined Wagnerian images, which arise in orderly processions to the sound of an orchestra, magnificent in its abundance and diverse in its flow, including the human voice as well.


Wagner’s images are generalities, they are myth-images. Tannhäuser in Venus’s sparkling cave, tearing himself away in anguish from the sweet embraces of the goddess; a young girl accused of a terrible crime is rescued at the last moment by a saintly knight who comes sailing up on a giant swan; the Rhine maidens who dart about, singing, like golden fish in the glittering depths of a metaphysical river; the winged Valkyries who appear amidst thunder and lightning with their wild cry of “Ho-yo-to-ho” as they fly on their aerial steeds; the dimming light of the world and the mournful one-eyed giant god who cannot avert death from himself and his own; love that rends the human heart with such force that it slips unobtrusively into death and makes death like unto itself; the dying, whose eyes are full of grief and mystical joy; wounded Amfortas, whose festering wound does not heal, and the shining Holy Grail which cures all ills, etc., etc. Hundreds of paintings have been based on Wagner’s themes and hundreds more may be so.

But Wagner is not only a musician and an actor (which is cause enough to produce the necessary prerequisites for creating a true musical theatre). Wagner is a great thinker besides. He is not concerned with a given situation, or with a given personage as such. He wants to reveal the true essence of life through his various personages and their relationships. In his desire to be a prophet he could not confine himself to merely exciting the audience by depicting various events. He wants to use these events to capture a person’s mind, to wrench him from the mundane and cast him upwards to a great height from which the true meaning of existence will reveal itself to him.

That is why words play such a great, though subordinate, part in Wagner’s works. The words define and clarify the music. Wagner the poet, and a great poet at that, is the indispensable colleague and helper of Wagner the composer.

Such, in general outline, is Wagner the artist. He is uncommonly interesting and versatile, integral for all his versatility, and powerful.

He is difficult to understand. He demands concentration and work. There is good reason why Nietzsche said he was bathed in sweat after listening to a Wagnerian opera. Listening to Wagner for light entertainment before supper is in the worst possible taste, it is barbarous, the very thought of it used to throw Wagner into a rage.

At the same time, Nietzsche’s reproaches still hold true to a great extent. He said that the overall structure of Wagner’s works is overloaded and baroque-heavy, that the music is over-wrought, excessively ecstatic, it violates our consciousness and turns our soul inside-out, as it were.


Every genius is always the result and the reflection of some deep social change. What social phenomenon produced such a giant as Richard Wagner?

Richard Wagner began his career in the 1830s. He created his music during a time immediately preceding the events of 1848 which could not have but influenced it. Later, we see a change in Wagner’s outlook, a change in his convictions. He became a different man entirely.

The great social phenomena which were reflected in Wagner’s works were first the rise and development of democracy in Germany and later the downfall of the democratic movement. He dreamed of complete and perfect democracy, a democracy which would develop into a classless society, into socialism. His outlook was roughly similar to Chernyshevsky’s in Russia ten or twenty years later.

Lenin once said that people of different social groups and strata advance towards a proletarian revolution along different roads.

Wagner’s theoretical works, especially his book Die Kunst and Die Revolution, cast a comprehensive light on the “first” Wagner of yore. Wagner did not proceed from revolution to art, but from art to revolution. That was good. That meant he advanced towards the revolution, driven on by the demands of his talent and his craft.

Wagner looked with horror upon what the bourgeoisie was doing to the theatre. The theatre was becoming a place of light entertainment, the theatre was becoming a commercial enterprise. This aroused a feeling of repulsion in Wagner. Recall that from the very start he was a man of iron will, that he dreamed of becoming a prophet and, by prophesying through art, of ruling his century. He wanted to be the teacher of his time, he saw the great artist only as a teacher of his time. He believed that the hour had struck for such a teacher to realise his mission, for the artist to become a teacher not by chance, but consciously. Thus, the theatre, too, must become the new temple. It was here, in the theatre, that the people were to create their new myths, i.e., to embody their convictions and their goals in living images, to steel themselves for battle, celebrate their victories and learn to bear any temporary defeats courageously. According to Wagner, the creative artist was the chief element in the theatre. However, all the performers had to be inspired with profound realisation of the serious nature of art. The theatre was not a symbol of frivolity, thoughtlessness and a good time. The theatre is, in the fullest sense, the focus of the people’s conscious life, the place in which all that is best that they possess turns into the pure metal of imagery and inversely influences them, organising their forces.

Such was Wagner’s unusually high conception of the theatre.

The opera Rienzi was written under the strong influence of these ideas. Wagner was still quite abstract and sought to express his ideas in a rather generalised way. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin do not immediately reveal their progressive essence. Nevertheless, despite the marked obscurity of these operas, they have a powerful effect upon us to this day.

Wagner then envisaged a gigantic work. He took as his theme the basic Teutonic myth, the Nibelungs. However, his approach contradicted the meaning imparted to it by the intellectuals of yore who had created the myth. The myth apparently has its roots in the very depth of man’s primitive beliefs. It has as its basis the fate of the Sun, with its constant eclipses and resurrection. If you describe this fate, beginning with the birth of the Sun and ending with its death (from morning to night, or from spring to winter), you will achieve the prototype of a pessimistic world. However, if you do the opposite, i.e., begin with a description of the Sun’s demise and end with its resurrection (the appearance of a victorious son, of a shining hero, victory over death), then you will have an optimistic concept of life in general, of the philosophy of existence.

Originally, Wagner planned his tetralogy in an optimistic vein. The main concepts which were set in opposition to each other, were a fatal myth, a myth in which all depended on fate, even the gods themselves, and the gradual development of a free individual, born of free love, beyond the pale of legalised matrimony (Siegmund and Sieglinde), developing under special conditions that forge his independent will. This independent individual, governed only by his conscience, becomes the screw with which the fate of the world can be turned. It is he who will finally break the iron chain of fate, who will return youth, joy and freedom to life.

But Wagner lived in a capitalist world and, at that revolutionary time, he hated the big bourgeoisie which was beginning to appropriate the world at an ever-increasing pace. He believed gold was poison. In this respect his views coincided with those Marx noted and praised in several poets of antiquity, in Shakespeare and others. Fate, first and foremost, is a common craving for gold, enslavement by greed. Siegfried’s freedom, first and foremost, is the fact that he rises above gold, above greed. That is why he acquires not only the features of an individual, free in the sense of anarchy, but the features of a hero throwing off the yoke of capital.


In criticising Stirner, Engels notes in passing that the fact that Raphael was able to fully develop his talents depended on the social conditions of his epoch. This observation holds true in the case of any artistic genius, including Wagner as well. Wagner was not fated to develop his talent along the course he originally embarked on. He carried within him from the very beginning the soul of a petty bourgeois, but as a result of the fiery breath of revolution he rose to a great height, and if this favourable revolutionary summer had continued, most probably all the fruit that had begun to grow on the branches of this mighty tree would have fully ripened. Under the influence of the revolution, Wagner would probably have written mainly songs of struggle and victory, songs glorifying life in this struggle, blessing Nature and Man, for a revolutionary is an optimist; a revolutionary is in love with Nature, Man and Life; a revolutionary is he who wishes and is able to change the world, i.e., to complete it in a humane way, to transform this would-be arena of happiness into a true arena of happiness. But this was not to be done by Wagner. Wagner went over to the side of reaction.

For thirteen years he lived in exile. For thirteen years he vacillated, becoming, however, ever more gloomy. The revolution lay on the ground with broken wings. The titans, who were spiritually so far above Wagner, did not despair; they had realised that it was not the petty bourgeoisie, but the proletariat that would one day triumph. They had already sensed wherein Siegfried had been born. They had already heard him forging the sword of his future vengeance in the growing factories; they knew that he had discovered the key to the “birds’ songs,” the prophetic songs of the laws of social order and the means of refashioning life.

Such were Marx and Engels, but Wagner was not of their kind.

However, Wagner was, at the same time, a man of action; he was a man with an unquenchable thirst for glory, power, influence and, finally, the wealth and honour that went with them. Exonerating himself in every possible way, growing old and changing inwardly, going through a deep molecular process of degeneration, as it were, Wagner advanced along his new, false way. There was much disgrace in store for him along this false way. The triumphant big bourgeoisie was creating a mighty Prussia with its capital and army. It was advancing towards victory over France, towards the years of capitalisation, towards the efflorescence of militaristic imperialism, towards all the pompous triumphs of Wilhelm’s reign. And Wagner became a nationalist. He began writing brassy marches in honour of the conquerors, and the heavy form his music took had its beginnings in the very same pompousness of triumphant capital which left its heavy stamp on many Berlin streets and squares as well.

Proceeding along this course, Wagner arrived at a full conciliation with the most reactionary cultural pole – orthodox Catholicism. If this plunged Nietzsche into despair and he returned again to his criticism of Wagner, trying to explain the reasons for his former idol’s fall, Marx, if I am not mistaken, merely expressed a single casual phrase in regard to the Bayreuth Festival plays. “A stupid celebration in honour of a court musician.”


Wagner became a renegade. This renegation was the turning-point in his development and was caused by the crisis in social development. Wagner could not fully develop his talents under the existing social conditions. The Wagner of the second period, this man who gave the world so many great masterpieces, was now crippled – a poisoned Siegfried.

But there are different kinds of renegades. There are happy-go-lucky, merry renegades. They gleefully don the gilded livery of their new master.

No, Wagner was not one of them. Having gone over into the service of the bourgeoisie, having had a good look at the new world from his new standpoint, he shuddered inwardly.

Yes, the bourgeoisie had won. But why then was its favourite philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, a pessimist? Why then did Hegel, who stood on the threshold of the bourgeois epoch, put so much effort into proving that Prussian bourgeois reality was quite in keeping with reason, while Schopenhauer, who had cursed Hegel most scornfully, tried to prove that the world in general was absolute unreason? This can be explained by the fact that the most alert members of the bourgeoisie sensed the worm that was eating at its heart.

Greed was the bourgeoisie’s guiding principle, greed of business, greed of accumulation. Its principle was universal

competition and a trampling of rivals, expansion and stockpiling billions upon billions.

Schopenhauer’s metaphysical “will” is but a scale model of the capitalist spirit. According to Schopenhauer, this will can never be satisfied. It knows neither happiness nor respite. It is either tormented by greed or tormented by boredom. It needs soul-searing action, tense, painful striving, otherwise it falls into apathy, so alien to its nature, and languishes in a stupor.

But, according to Schopenhauer, there is a way out of this horror. One can wrench free by destroying any and all human feelings one may have, by the Hindu striving for Nirvana, and in this, art, and especially music, is man’s best helpmate. Music is an accurate reflection of the very essence of the world. When we fully perceive this reflection, we free ourselves of the essence itself. Art breaks the magic spell of the world. As we sink sweetly into art, we sink into death, into peace, released from existence, which is hell. Art is the redeemer.

Perhaps Wagner would have reached these conclusions himself, but Schopenhauer was there, and Wagner joined him.

What then did the world become to him? The world was undoubtedly doomed. This was undeniably a funeral procession towards a tragic end. It was a procession full of mutual struggle, treachery, greed and crime. There were some outstanding individuals, but they, too, were doomed. They could do nothing to avert the fatal events. However, only one who is enlightened by the wisdom of art could prepare for a solemn death, overcome existence and in majestic, though sorrowful reverie, dissolve into nothingness.

Wagner strives for such redemption. His tetralogy would no longer proceed from winter to spring. It would end with an eclipse, it would end with the death of the world. Free man had been unable to conquer. The forces of evil had triumphed. But they triumphed merely in fact, while only an awareness of fate, submission to it and the desire to escape it, thus escaping from life as well, triumphed in a moral, musical sense.

The opera Tristan and Isolde proclaims this still more mournfully and venomously. The poison is very sweet. Wagner offers us a finale of love and death, the focus of the entire opera. We have drained the cup of life and we are alive. Life is sweet. Love is the climax of all life. It is full of the charm that only an artist can reveal to us. Only an artist can teach us how great the temptation of life is, how excessive and fascinating is the deceit which, like the Sun, shines in the ghostly world of existence. But: the honest artist must also reveal that love is death, that all existence, like the vortex of a whirlpool, rushes towards destruction. The artist must not terrify us by such a prospect, but must make us bless it as a true deliverance.

Such is Wagner’s Hindu, Christian, Asiatic artistic and musical moral sermon. Such is the black, destructive “prophecy” of the new Wagner. Moreover, he dots his “i’s” when, in his old age, he descends, according to Nietzsche, to the foot of the Cross, and creates a variation on the Catholic mass in Parsifal.

The circle is complete. The revolutionary has become a reactionary. The rebellious petty bourgeois now kisses the slipper of the Pope, the keeper of order.


What should our attitude be towards Wagner? Perhaps we should cast him aside, since he is a reactionary? Perhaps we should say: Only from here to here? And accept the first Wagner uncritically, forgetting how immature he was, how many admixtures there were? Or should we discard the second Wagner completely, forgetting the powerful music, the passionate emotions, the shining artistry of this genius, a prisoner of reaction?

None of this is right. We would never be forgiven if we did not know how to analyse, if we would have cast away the rich gold ore simply because, at first glance, it contained very few grains of gold. We would never have been forgiven if we had accepted at face value a piece of impure metal, corroded from within. Our analysis cannot manipulate masters and opuses as a whole. We must delve deeper. An understanding of Wagner from a socialist point of view is a very intricate affair. Woe to him who impoverishes the world by crossing out Wagner’s name with a censor’s pencil. Woe to him who would let this cunning magician, this talent, tainted by an evil disease, into our camp and, as in Heine’s famous poem, would let the plague-stricken titan press his lips against the face of young proletarian culture.

Beware! Quarantine! All baggage must be checked! We must see what is what! Not a shade of mechanicism! Chemical decomposition! The ability to point out how the contradictory has been interwoven: the ability of healthy organism to differentiate between the nourishing and the indifferent and harmful!

In this respect, and sometimes taking advantage of anniversaries, we must submit the past and all the great creators of the treasures we have inherited to the judgement of the stern and penetrating proletarian court.

Here we shall discover the most diverse relationships. We shall meet our great predecessors and teachers of the past whom the immaturity of their epoch only sometimes prevented from rising to complete understanding and who, with some minor changes, could be wholly and gloriously permitted to work with the living.

Here we may come upon imaginary giants whose greatness is either empty and puffed-up, or dependent upon their servitude to classes whose successes and interests were completely hostile to the development of mankind. The imaginary glory of such celebrities will be torn away by the stern and just analysis of history.

But more often than not we shall find mixed-up giants such as Wagner, where the positive and the negative are closely intertwined and seem to have entered into a chemical combination.

In this instance the task is most difficult. It is quite easy to make a mistake one way or another. The task calls for a knowledge of the subject, it calls for a knowledge of history and culture and the specific nature of the field in which a given master worked.

I have no intention of attempting such an analysis here. This calls for the efforts of a specialist. I simply want to note some of the more obvious pros and cons of the great German musician.

First of all, there is the sound of Wagner’s music, the intensity, the depth, courage, variety, passion, psychological and acoustical charm of his musical texture. Here one can learn much from Wagner. We will rarely find such intensity and generosity, such depth and density of the musical stream in pre-Wagnerian music. And we will rarely find such integrity, such unity, encompassing vast musical worlds, we will rarely find musical phrases and chords that have been so fully thought out and emotionally tested in post-Wagnerian music. Richard Strauss, for instance, produces a greater festive virtuosity than Wagner; Gustav Mahler, for instance, produces more intricate chords and orchestral colours. But one has the impression that the peak of pathétique music has been passed. It is as if these musicians are merely imitating reality.

Wagner’s music is shrouded in a magnificent cloak. The cloaks of the outstanding composers of pathétique music after Wagner are more majestic still, but no longer does the goddess who found shelter beneath Wagner’s cloak abide with them. Wagner has bequeathed this wealth, this seriousness, and, in the sense of musical ideas, this meaningfulness to future centuries.

Likewise, the combination of a philosopher-musician and a philosopher-poet, and a dramatist at that, has apparently made him the greatest proponent of the true union of music and literature. And we need this, too. We will need this very, very much.

Wagner could at times channel his exalted musical and dramatic force to serve ideas that were wrong and even harmful, thus making this great power poisonous, but he never demeaned it to become a reflection of the petty, he never debased it to the level of the trivial or the casual.

No matter if he depicted love or vicious hate, greed, power-madness, or a flight towards freedom, etc. – he portrayed them all in great, commanding images and raised them to such generalisations as to make the emotions he described all-meaningful. This ability to raise art, to raise the theatre to such great heights and artistic abstraction – but abstraction that is not emaciated, that encompasses the concrete, summing it up and making it understandable and significant – this is an ability that we, too, need, and we possess it in a very small measure, which can be proved, firstly, by the fact that our poets and composers have not yet been able to produce a major opera about our revolutionary passions, our world struggle.