E. M. Braudo 1935

Richard Wagner: A Marxist Interpretation

Author: E. M. Braudo;
Written: 1935;
First published: 1935 in Istoriia Muzyki (History of Music), pp. 223-228;
Source: https://viewer.rusneb.ru/ru/000199_000009_005270860?page=1&rotate=0&theme=white
Translated by: Anton P.

The revolutionary energy that had accumulated in the 1830s and 1840s and was discharged in 1848 in Germany and France was of decisive importance for the further development of musical art. Its organizing significance also affected the creative path of Richard Wagner (especially in the first period of his activity), a typical representative of the German petty bourgeoisie, as unstable as his class, rushing from utopian socialism and anarcho-rebellious sentiments to the positions of militant nationalism (late 1860s and 1870s). Richard Wagner (1813-1883) witnessed three revolutionary upheavals (1830, 1848, 1871). He was the son of a petty official, was brought up in a petty-bourgeois German family, and came to music only in a roundabout way, after a strong passion for the theater. Wagner, in essence, did not receive a systematic musical education, except for six months of studies with the scientific theorist P. Weinlig. At the age of twenty, Wagner began acting as a bandmaster in small German theaters, wandered mainly in northern Germany, and in 1838 ended up in Russia (Riga). Thanks to an accidental musical collaboration in one of the leading magazines of that time, Wagner approaches a circle of radical German writers, the Young Germany group, which waged a fierce struggle against fantastic and mystical Romanticism. He himself, however, in his first operas (Fairies and Forbidden Love), dating back to the 1830s, is strongly influenced by extreme Romanticism, especially by the German writer Hoffmann. In 1839, Wagner fled without a passport from Russia to Paris, hoping to stage the opera Rienzi, which had begun in Riga, on stage there. During a three-year stay in Paris (1839-1842), Wagner completed opera Rienzi, wrote the overture Faust and the Romantic opera The Flying Dutchman based on the plot of the Heine legend. Under the influence of Heine, he is imbued with the teachings of Saint-Simonism and thus lays the social foundation of his artistic worldview.

From 1843-1849 Wagner held the post of conductor of the Dresden Opera. Here he ardently sets about breaking the old stereotyped staging techniques, writing the operas Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). The end of the latter coincided with the significant days of 1848, when Wagner joined the revolutionary circle of German radicalism. In this rapprochement between Wagner and the revolutionaries of 1848-49. a significant role was played by his friendship with the second Kapellmeister of the Dresden Opera, August Röckel. Röckel introduced Wagner to Bakunin, who secretly lived in Dresden in 1849. In all likelihood, it was Bakunin who served as the “model” for the Wagnerian Siegfried, who breaks the chains of violence that envelop the world. There is no doubt that Wagner took an active part in the Dresden armed uprising. After the suppression of the latter, he had to flee from Dresden to Switzerland, which was carried out with the help of his selfless friend Franz Liszt.

Wagner spent 13 years in exile until he received an amnesty. In the first years of his emigrant life, he published a number of significant theoretical works: The Artwork of the Future (1849), Art and Revolution (1849), Opera and Drama (1851), where he considers art issues as phenomena of social culture, in which lies the main value of these treatises for our time. Already in these years, the complete duality of the worldview of Richard Wagner is revealed, as he was never able to go beyond the circle of bourgeois radicalism. As the contradictions in capitalist Germany grow, Wagner becomes more and more entangled in them. Already in 1849-1850. Wagner, along with a treatise of a brightly materialistic revolutionary content, Art and Revolution, publishes the extremely reactionary pamphlet Judaism in Music. Interrupting the composition of The Ring, he writes a work of a distinctly feudal color: Tristan and Isolde.

The main works of the emigrant period of Wagner’s life are the grandiose Ring of the Nibelung (four musical dramas). The content of the cycle is borrowed from Nordic mythology, in the images of which he quite correctly guessed the reflection of the process of enslavement of a free person by feudal dependence. In the image of the hero of the Ring, Siegfried, Wagner sought to capture the idea of ​​a revolutionary fighter for social independence. But this cycle was interrupted by Wagner and in the mid-1850s he was working on a new work. This work is Tristan and Isolde, based on a plot from medieval poetry, interpreted by Wagner in the nature of a feudal worldview (the death of a feudal lord for violation of loyalty to the king as the “eternal law of life”), coincides with the period of a deep internal change in Wagner’s worldview, which led him from his former optimism to a deep denial of the will to live, as the highest wisdom, inspired in him by the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. From the outside, the life of the composer is extremely unfavorable. He has to interrupt his work for the sake of conducting performances (Wagner was one of the most remarkable conductors of the 19th century), he tries to settle in Paris, where in 1861, through the efforts of his friends, he managed with great difficulty to stage Tannhäuser on the stage of the Grand Opera. But the scandal perpetrated by the Parisian “golden youth” at the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser rendered these hopes futile. In 1863, Wagner, in search of funds, accepted the offer of the Russian Philharmonic Society and conducted a number of concerts from the works of Beethoven and his own in Petersburg and Moscow.

In 1864, a turn took place in Wagner’s life: he received an offer from Ludwig of Bavaria to move to Munich to implement his reforms outlined in his artistic and theoretical treatises of the 1840s and 1850s. Wagner’s unbalanced and romantically inclined patron especially appreciated him as a poet. In 1865, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the Munich Opera, and a colossal sum was spent to stage it. The latter circumstance, as well as an attempt to build a special Wagnerian theater in Munich, caused an indignant rebuff from public opinion, and in 1866 Wagner had to move again to Switzerland. In the summer of 1868 in Munich, with the greatest success, which for the first time fell to the lot of the “fifty-five-year-old master,” his musical comedy Meistersingers was held. In this musical comedy, where Wagner takes the side of radical musical and poetic innovation, he, at the same time, idealizes the mature worldly wisdom of a representative of (albeit better) medieval guild life and reveals an undoubtedly nationalistic attitude towards purely German art, opposed to the “tinsel” of Italian-French operatic music.

During the years of his second stay in Switzerland, Wagner completed his grandiose “tetralogy” The Ring of the Nibelung, the composition of which took a total of twenty-six years (1848-1874). Here in Switzerland, Wagner finally established himself in the idea of ​​the need for a special theater for the production of the Ring of the Nibelung and in an amazingly short time developed a plan for future solemn performances, as he thought the production of The Ring before a special audience. Wagner wanted to have at his disposal for the production of The Ring a theater reproducing the ancients, with an amphitheater auditorium and an orchestra hidden under the stage. Thus, he hoped to eliminate everything that hinders the stage illusion and create a picture of a folk theatrical celebration. Thanks to the support of a circle of friends, Wagner managed to raise the necessary amount to build the House of Gala Performances in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth, picturesquely located at the foot of the mountain range. In 1876, the theater was opened by the Ring of the Nibelung, for which Wagner managed to unite the best German artistic forces. The success of the Ring was complete and decisive, but after the end of the first solemn performances it turned out that they gave a huge deficit. To cover the latter, Wagner had to undertake a large concert trip in order to collect a new theater fund. For the ideological support of the enterprise, the magazine Bayreuther Blätter and the General Wagner Union were founded. In the journal, Wagner wrote a number of articles characterizing the problem of the new theater, culture, and philosophy. The ardent atheist and materialist of the 1840s and early 1850s appears in them as a supporter of extreme nationalism and mystical idealism, with which he tries in vain to reconcile his former radical worldview. The fanatical propaganda of nationalism and the most Black Hundred political “theories” substantiating the ideology of big capital and land ownership, the popularization of Gobineau’s completely unscientific statements about the ruling races, bestial anti-Semitism – all this finds expression in Wagner’s articles of this period. In the same tones of mystical idealism flirting with orthodox Catholicism, Wagner’s last work Parsifal (1882) is painted on the plot of a medieval novel.

Wagner died on February 13, 1883 in Venice.

Wagner’s musical heritage embraces 13 operas and musical dramas: Fairies (1833), Forbidden Love (1834), Rienzi (1837-1841), The Flying Dutchman (1842), Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1848), Ring of the Nibelung (Rheingold, Valkyrie, Siegfried, Twilight of the Gods, 1848-1874), Tristan and Isolde (1859), The Meistersingers (1868) and Parsifal (1882). To this list it is necessary to add a whole series of chamber works (all youthful), mostly published after the death of Wagner, eight concert overtures written between 1832-1837, the Faust Overture (two editions, 1842 and 1859), three solemn marches for a large orchestra, the orchestral idyll Siegfried (1869), five romances for voice and piano, a symphony in C-major (1832), music for Goethe’s Faust (1832), three romances with a French text (1840). The complete collection of Wagner’s literary and philosophical works comprises ten volumes. Some of these works have been translated into Russian. In 1911, Wagner’s long autobiography My Life was published, ending in 1864 (a Russian translation is available).

Wagner during his lifetime split the entire musical and cultural world into two hostile camps: one fiercely hostile to him, on the one hand, and one immoderately extolling him, on the other. In the person of Wagner we have a multi-talented genius who completed his musical and literary achievements; regarding the era of Romanticism. Wagner, equally talented as a poet and musician, dispensed with the mediation of a librettist and, thanks to this, was able to completely merge his musical and dramatic ideas. Music and word, according to Wagner, mutually complement each other, and the internal stability of the musical drama will be achieved by the fact that the text itself will not contain anything non-musical, everything that cannot be conveyed by the expressive means of this art. The latter is completely alien to all the random phenomena of life, history, everyday life. Music is a pure manifestation of feeling, and, consequently, the content of musical dramas can only be a spontaneous expression of life phenomena. The stage image and music are two sides, auditory and visual, of dramatic perception. With such an understanding of musical dramaturgy, Wagner resolutely rejected all the musical forms of the old opera, flatly rejected the former “finished numbers” that break up a meaningful opera work into separate pieces. He tried in this way to overcome the inherent implausibility of traditional opera, based on the slow display of a dramatic plot.

All Wagner’s typical techniques of musical dramaturgy were unconsciously used by him already in his early operas. His main technique lies in the “endless melody”, that is, such a continuous musical sound that does not for a moment weaken the listener’s artistic susceptibility. A born symphonist, Wagner mastered the art of thematic development amazingly. Already in his early works, as, for example, in The Flying Dutchman (1842), his musical thought, like stage action, moves in a continuous wave. Just in this work, Wagner breaks with the usual “numbers” of the former opera, and here for the first time we observe the appearance of a special technique characteristic of him: the use of a system of leitmotifs, that is, certain melodic turns, and sometimes harmonies for the outlines of a person or phenomenon. In creating such characteristic motifs, in their comparison, development, in the ability to weave a musical fabric on them, Wagner showed the greatest genius. The pinnacle of his leitmotif technique should be considered the Ring of the Nibelung. In this cycle, the leitmotif fabric that organizes the musical, dramatic and pictorial moments of the text is brought to full perfection.

Along with this, in other musical dramas of Wagner, another tendency begins to appear – to use the forms of the classical ensemble, that is, the simultaneous singing of several actors, which at first glance contradicts the principles of leitmotif technique and “endless melody”. Thus, in Die Meistersinger we encounter an ensemble of five characters (a mutated quintet in the third act), but its appearance is due to the completely natural setting of the action. In the same Meistersinger Wagner makes extensive use of the techniques of polyphonic writing for large scenes as a whole – the result of the influence of Bach’s style on him. It is also undoubted that, in terms of harmony, Wagner was also far from being free from the influence of contemporaries, especially Liszt, who left his mark on Tristan. But with all these influences, his strong, independent genius coped easily, and Wagner’s originality as a musician is almost completely not obscured from us by extraneous influences.

Wagner was the first German composer after Beethoven who influenced not only music, but also other aspects of the cultural life of Europe. “Wagnerianism” is a phenomenon known to all European nations. It affected both the theater and literature, and even, in a certain sense, the political life of Europe, when Germany, after a series of victorious wars, united into a powerful empire. For three decades, Wagner, in addition to his own desire, was the ideological leader of the militant German nationalists. Until the end of his days, Wagner dreamed of creating a popular art accessible to the masses, but, breaking away from the revolutionary base and entering into an agreement with the ruling classes, he gave the Bayreuth theater to the big German bourgeoisie and turned it into a “temple” for a few initiates. the idea of ​​“ceremonial performances” of the national drama was caused by the huge public upsurge of 1848 and is essentially fruitful and positive.

Wagner’s musical-reforming project had a fundamental effect on the entire further development of opera, but he still did not create a real opera school, just as he did not succeed in completely ousting the old pre-reform opera from the European repertoire. The general musical influence of Wagner is explained by the fact that he used to the extreme limit the means of musical expression available in his time. However, musical and dramatic creativity after Wagner began to noticeably weaken and did not create samples that could replace the favorite operas of the old repertoire for the general public. At the beginning of the 20th century, opposition to Wagner began to be noticed, first in France, where a school was formed that fundamentally denied his musical and dramatic techniques. For some time, until about 1929, the number of Wagnerian productions also decreased. Under the conditions of fascist Germany, Wagner was proclaimed a national leader. His “Nürenberg Meistersingers” are especially often staged, as an apotheosis of German national art.