Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love, by Barry Emslie, Boydell Press £50, 312 pages
The romantic title is deceptive. Heterosexual love may indeed permeate Wagner’s music dramas, most of which climax in their protagonists’ release from worldly cares through a quasi-spiritual sexual union. But the ideas underpinning The Flying Dutchman, The Ring and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg are far knottier than meets the eye. This new study offers a lively introduction to anyone seeking to understand them.
We have been here before: books about the master of Bayreuth tumble out at a phenomenal rate. The initial lure has always been the music, the primeval force of which inspires as much obsessive adulation among admirers as it repels those who, equally obsessively, cite Wagner as the ideological father of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Go a little deeper though and you find a treasure-chest – or hornet’s nest, depending on where you stand in the polarised Wagner debate – of moral and philosophical issues.
Barry Emslie, a New Zealand-born, Berlin-based critic, is well-versed in the latest German-language scholarship and does his best to digest it for English-language readers. While his more colloquial analogies may offend high-minded Wagnerites, his highly opinionated survey brings fresh air to the debate. By interpreting the operas in the context of Wagner’s polemical, often virulently anti-Semitic writings, Emslie sets himself against such eminent Wagner apologists as Daniel Barenboim, Bryan Magee and Michael Tanner, who prefer to keep the composer’s potent works and poisonous beliefs in separate boxes.
The crux of his argument is that Wagner’s creative and personal life thrived on tension between the sensual and spiritual – initially represented on stage by Venus and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) and ultimately fused in Kundry (Parsifal). Wagner saw the goal of life as “the discovery of the true self, physical bliss, redemption from sin and suffering, and ultimately renunciation of the world” – a mass of contradictions that only someone of his sexual drive and intellectual egotism could have concocted.
A necessary vehicle for fulfilment was the “the eternal feminine”. This idealised figure would offer sexual gratification and mystic insights on one hand (the Mary Magdalene whore-prototype) while fulfilling a purifying function on the other (the Mary-mother-of-Jesus virgin). The two polarities are suffused in Kundry’s kiss, “a sensual pleasure and a religious benediction”.
Add the Jew wandering in search of redemption (the Dutchman, Wotan), an idealised German nation (mastersingers, knights of the Holy Grail) and Oedipal drama (Brunnhilde/Siegfried, Sachs/Eva) and you end up, says Emslie, with an “ideology that vindicates the unconditional freedom of the male, so that he is unencumbered by sin in the free exercise of his desires … In short, Wagner has it both ways.”
Emslie enjoys poking fun at the composer’s intellectual contortions. Wagner, he argues, manipulated philosophies he admired, principally Schopenhauer and the Bible, but was careful not to be too explicit. “Otherwise the glorious swindle of Wagner’s sensual and spiritual redemption would collapse.”
The picture that emerges is of an artist even more attracted to ersatz-Christian symbolism than has hitherto been supposed, leaving the Buddhist leanings of Parsifal in the shade. As for the Jews, Wagner turned on them not merely as a butt for his own persecution complex, but because he needed an antipode for all his theories about what was good and holy. And yet the first conductor of Parsifal was Hermann Levi, a Jew: just one more paradox in a bonfire of profundities that, far from generating a Tristan-like romantic nirvana, has enough toxic fuel to last an eternity.
Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic