Richard Wagner’s revolution: “Music drama” against bourgeois “opera"

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 17 May 2015 | 10:34:00 am

Richard Wagner’s revolution: “Music drama” against bourgeois “opera"Dr Mark Berry

Contrary to widespread opinion, Richard Wagner started off his career as the most revolutionary composer of the nineteenth century, not just in a musical sense but also in a more straightforwardly political manner. Contemporary obsession with alleged anti-Semitism in his dramatic works, aided and abetted by the de facto prohibition upon their performance in Israel, has tended to drown out all other controversy, of which there should be more, not less, both in quantity and in quality.

Wagner was not simply a supporter of the 1849 Dresden uprising, one of the more bloody episodes of the 1848–1849 revolutions; he was an active participant. Wagner probably ordered hand grenades; he certainly served on the barricades and acted as lookout, observing street fighting from the tower of the Kreuzkirche, while engaging in animated politico-philosophical discussion. Many revolutionary leaders, participants, and sympathizers were killed or punished, including Wagner’s comrade-in-arms, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. By chance, and with his friend Franz Liszt’s help, Wagner escaped into Swiss exile (Newman 1933: 104–105). There he would pen both a good deal of theoretical writing—often dealing with the implications of artistry in the modern, capitalist world that so repelled him—and his vast musico-dramatic tetralogy, The ring of the Nibelung, which he wrote to “make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense” (Wagner [1866] 1967: 176, author’s translation).

For Wagner, that revolution remained in the air, even after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, which had marked its final act to many German erstwhile ’48ers. Revolution still promised to bring not only political and social but also artistic transformation. Indeed, reinstatement of the public, anti-individualistic essence of art was very much of a piece with socialism in “political” life. Wagner’s ideas may not have been so clearly acknowledged by twentieth-century successors as they should, whether through ignorance or through embarrassment at hijacking by the Nazis. However, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, was enthusiastic, as were many of his fellow Leninist revolutionaries. Indeed, Lunacharsky’s festive-revolutionary plans for the Bolshoi and Mariinsky (soon to be Kirov) Theatres were explicitly inspired by Wagner’s own Art and revolution(Bartlett 1995: 256). Such ideas have certainly not disappeared today, although in an artistic world cowed by late capitalism, they are heard less often than they should be.

Renewal of Athenian tragedy: Public and political

It would be fruitless to argue about whether Wagner’s conception of theater was backward- or forward-looking, for it was both. Wagner aimed not at a restoration of tragedy but rather at its renewal. His plans may be understood in terms of an abiding problem of modern political philosophy: how to reconcile the apparently idyllic communal integration of Hellenic life and the post-Classical or Christian conception of subjectivity. The Greeks, Wagner wrote, “knew no superlative of ‘free.’” Only through the superlative of freedom’s negation, “through dehumanization, can we come today to full knowledge, owing to the highest necessity, of freedom” (Wagner 1912, vol. 12: 255, author’s translation).


Wagner saw the Athenian polis as an embodiment of harmony between the individual and society, private and public. Art and its performance were not merely part of this but the most important part, the supreme manifestation of harmony. The Greek state was, following Schiller, itself a political work of art, in contradistinction to the abstraction of the modern bureaucratic state. Art, then, was “public” in the truest sense of the word. Wagner contended that for “the Greeks, it [art] was present in the public consciousness, whereas today it is present only in the consciousness of individuals, meaning nothing to the unconscious public.” Greek art was conservative, whereas its renewal, Wagner suggested, must be “revolutionary, since it exists only in opposition to the existing public” (Wagner 1912, vol. 3: 28, author’s translation). The Athenian spectator had been reconciled with “the most noble and profound principles of his people’s consciousness”; Wagner’s postrevolutionary audience would celebrate its membership of “free humanity,” a “nobler universalism” (Wagner 1912, vol. 3: 30, 23, 39, author’s translation).2 The ring was a culmination of idealism’s attempt to renew what Hegel had called the “religion of art” (Hegel [1807] 1977: 424–453, author’s translation), for much early socialism was at least as much concerned to found a new religion upon the apparent ruins of Christianity as to respond to the Industrial and French Revolutions.