How much Schopenhauer is really in Wagner's work?

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 2 May 2013 | 9:06:00 pm


How much Schopenhauer is there really in Wagner?
A l e s s a n d r o  P i n z a n i
Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina – UFSC – Florianópolis

The paper aims at analyzing some Wagnerian figures in order to show that the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy on Wagner is not as strong as commonly held – at least not in his operas. The figures that shall be considered are: Wotan and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde, and finally Parsifal, who appears to be the only Schopenhauerian character of all.

It is not my intention in this paper to speak generically of the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy on Wagner. I shall rather try to analyze five Wagnerian figures in order to show that the current opinion on Schopenhauer’s influence on his works should be at least partially revised. While Schopenhauer’s thought undoubtedly impressed Wagner very much, this influence should be sought rather in some theoretical aspects, that is, with regard to the role Wagner assigns to art in general and to music in particular, and maybe in some musical aspects. This influence seems to be weaker precisely with regard to the dramaturgical aspect, to the librettos, in which we would expect to find it at its strongest, but in which on the contrary we are confronted with figures andsituations that are rather at odds with Schopenhauer’s thought.

The figures I shall consider are Wotan and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde, and finally Parsifal. The choice is not arbitrary, but is in a sense an obligatory one, since Wagner himself connects these figures to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. But first, let me reconstruct briefly the circumstances under which Wagner fell under the spell of Schopenhauer. 

In 1854 Wagner finishes with the composition of the musical score of Walküre. In the fall of that year he reads for the first time The World as Will and Representation. In the summer of 1855 he claims to have read the book already four times and in fact he shall read it over and over since that moment. The diaries of his wife Cosima testify of this steady, systematical and repeated study of  Schopenhauer’s masterwork. At first she notes when she and her husband would have read Kant and Schopenhauer at night. After a while, she notes rather the uncommon event of not having read Schopenhauer (“Heute kein S.”). It seems that this enthusiasm was not reciprocated by the philosopher. He liked the libretto of the Ring, although he wondered why the composer had sent it to him without a presentation letter; he even held Wagner for a decent, even if not a good poet, but
apparently he did not like Wagner’s music. This should come as no surprise, since the examples of opera he mentions with appreciation in his book are Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bellini’s Norma, which are quite far from Wagnerian artistic forms and ideals. Anyway, Wagner became a life-long adept of Schopenhauer: he gave his book as a present to friends and simple acquaintances and always wanted to  discuss it with them. Some reacted with irritation or rage, since they considered
Ludwig Feuerbach
this infatuation for Schopenhauer’s apolitical, pessimistic thought to be treason to Wagner’s early social ideals. This idea can be found in several authors (notably Nietzsche and G. B. Shaw) who think that the revolutionary Wagner of the Forties became in the Fifties a reactionary, going over from an optimistic political position and from a strong will of artistic change to a radical pessimism and, in Parsifal, to an ascetic renunciation towards life. We shall consider later whether this criticism
is correct with regard to Parsifal

On the other side, if we consider Wagner’s theoretical writings before his encounter with Schopenhauer, we can find many common points with regard to the priority assigned to music over the other arts. This lead Edouard Sans, who analyzed extensively the relationship between the composer and the philosopher, to write that Wagner “was intimately ready to get from the philosopher the validation of his deepest convictions. Schopenhauer will preach to the choir”
(SANS 1969, p. 263). From this point of view, the writing on Beethoven from 1870, the most “Schopenhauerian” among Wagner’s writings, could be seen alternatively either as the most accomplished expression of the “true” Wagner, or as a mere repetition of old ideas in new form, or as a complete change in the composer’s theoretical stance. The querelle is far from being solved, but it will not matter here (for an analysis of the different readings see COOKE 1979, MAGEE
1988 and NATTIEZ 1997).

Wagner himself admitted that in reading Schopenhauer he recognized in the idea of the renunciation to will the very same idea that moved all his main characters: the Flying Dutchman, whose only aspiration is to be freed from his immortality, from the eternal cycle of seven years and a day to which he is condemned; Tannhäuser, who in fact seeks in sex only a way of escaping from the
world; even Lohengrin, although it is not so easy to understand what Wagner is referring to. In any case, he claims that thanks to his reading of The World as Will and Representation he became conscious of things he had just sensed before, without grasping them fully. He even wrote in a letter that “only now I got to  understand my Wotan”. In his highly unreliable, but nevertheless fundamental autobiography Wagner writes that he found in Schopenhauer all what he had
already expressed in literary and metaphorical form in the Ring libretto. This is a relevant claim and we should take it seriously. What was Wagner’s original aim when he started working on the Ring? Of  course he had an aesthetical intention, namely to complete an artwork that corresponded to the ideals he defended in his theoretical writings like The Artwork of the Future or Opera and Drama. But we are not interested in the aesthetical or musical aspects, rather in the philosophical, ideal or even ideological ones in the librettos. Wagner’s original intention when he started working on the libretto was notably to describe a world characterized by the lack of love and by injustice (in
that time the composer stood under the influence of Feuerbach, as it is well known). This is symbolized by the act through which at the beginning of the Ring Alberich curses love and steals the Rhine gold – an act that, however, just duplicates the act through which Wotan had ripped out a branch of the cosmic ash in order to build a shaft for his spear. The redemption from this unjust, loveless world should happen through an extraordinary couple, Brünnhilde and Siegfried,
which should come about thank the breaking-off of social conventions (Siegfried is the son of two siblings: Siegmund and Sieglinde) and of the dominant social order (Brünnhilde is a rebel against the father and, indirectly, against Fricka, who stand  both guarantor for this order: Wotan guaranteeing pacts and contracts, Fricka guaranteeing the familiar ties and the mores, the Sitten). While working at the libretto, however, dramaturgical reasons lead Wagner to change radically his project. Far from redeeming the world through their love, Siegfried and Brünnhilde end up drifting apart irreconcilably.2 When, at the end of the Ring, Brünnhilde throws the ring back into the Rhine, Siegfried has already died thanks to her plotting with Hagen and the Walhalla is burning. Her redemptive act is very different from the one initially imagined by Wagner: apparently we are not faced with redemption through the love of a couple, rather with expiation through havoc
and destruction. 

To this change in the story corresponds a radical change in one of the Ring’s main characters, namely, Wotan. At the beginning of Rheingold we find an extremely self-confident Wotan. At the end of this opera, after Erda has warned him to let the ring go and has preannounced the twilight of the gods, Wotan loses  shortly his self-confidence, but he thinks immediately of a plan to get back the ring  and prevent the fall of Walhalla, as his words to Fricka let guess. At the beginning of Walküre he is still convinced that his plan is going to work: he will use Siegmund to vanquish Fafner and get back the ring. His confidence is destroyed by Fricka in a dialogue that represents the central moment of the Ring along with the following scene with Brünnhilde. His wife shows him the futility of his effort: far from acting freely, Siegmund is just a tool in Wotan’s hands, a puppet executing his order, while he, the god, is the real actor. Wotan is forced to acknowledge that Fricka is right and this revelation devastates him. Therefore, in the following  dialogue with his daughter he expresses all his discouragement and despair, coming so far as to wish that Alberich might recover the ring. This is not even pessimism: it is plain nihilism, if one considers the dwarf’s intentions. In one of the musically more intense pages of the whole Ring Wotan cries:

“I give up my work.
Only one thing I want now:
the end,
the end!” 
However, on several occasions Wotan shall admit that this decision of wanting the end was taken in a moment of despair and rage and that he did not renounce definitively his plans. In Siegfried, Wotan, who now calls himself Wanderer (but  The hero, under the spell of Hagen’s magic potion, promises to Günther to conquer Brünnhilde for him as a bride in order to get in exchange Gutrune’s hand. When Brünnhilde sees her husband at the side of his new bride, she swears revenge and reveals to Hagen where Siegfried’s weak spot lies: in his back.Therefore Hagen is able to kill Siegfried. When she learns from Gutrune that Siegfried was under the spell of the magic potion, however, Brünnhilde goes back to her initial love, climbs up the pyre where his lover’s corpse lies, starts the fire that shall destroy Walhalla and throw the ring in the Rhine.