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28 November 2011

Wagner as Artist and Revolutionary

Friedrich Wilhelm

1. Vaterlandsverein Speech

On May 11th, 1848, the royal Kapellmeister of Dresden composed his essay, Entwurf zur Organisation eines deutschen National-theaters für das Konigreich Sachsen (On the Organization of a German National Theatre for the Kingdom of Saxony.) The Kapellmeister, Wilhelm Richard Wagner now approaching his 35th birthday was merging his artistic vision with a political vision. Theatre had become a mirror image of the reactionary society that needed to be changed if he were to achieve his artistic ambitions. 1 By this time Wagner had already been recognized in the musical world for the compostion of three operas, Rienzi, Der Fliegende Hollander, and Tannhauser. Each of these operas was given a debut at the famous Dresden opera house which in less than a year would go up in flames under uncertain circumstances. A century later Allied bombs would destroy the Art-city of Dresden. This city, so rich in artistic treasures, so steeped in Germanic history and tradition, the birthplace of Wagner's artistic and philosophical ideas would be annihilated in one of numerous examples of Allied atrocities against the German population. Allied bombs would reduce the rebuilt Dresden opera house to rubble and bury many beneath its ruins. 2

In 1848, the kingdom of Saxony, as well as other German principalities, were in a state of much unrest. At this time, Wagner's only real operatic success was Rienzi. He was less than pleased with the reaction to his subsequent two operas, Der Fliegende Hollander and Tannhauser. Angry over his less than overwhelming success and pressured by increasing credit difficulties, Wagner was easily swept up in the grandiose scheme of societal reform. Although the revolution was to improve the overall condition of the working class, Wagner's inner reason for participation was two-fold. Wagner thought that the revolution would eliminate terrible conditions caused by materialism. He had hoped for the abolition of the current system of monetary reward and exchange. Of course with such an abolition, the ever increasing debts that he was incurring would be swept away. Wagner also theorized that the post-revolution society, a regenerated society would need a music, and a theatre, and a composer. With all that had gone before, wiped away in the flame and flood of revolution, a single composer would be left, that composer was of course, Wagner.

he German people clamoured for a constitutional government. The demands included: Freedom of the press, trial by jury, national armies, and political representatives. 3 A deputation set out from Leipzig, in February 1848 and pleaded the demands before the king of Saxony. The king replied through even more rigorous press censorship. Enraged by the refusal of their requests, the people now informed the king that the press was free, and if freedom was not officially recognized, Leipzig would march en masse on Dresden. Still the king refused to hear the voice of the people. Wagner's townspeople marched on Dresden. Prussian aid was sought and given. Other towns arranged mass deputations to the king, who despatched a minister to report on the attitude of Leipzig. The report read, "The people are determined and orderly." Upon hearing the report the king gave in. He changed his ministers, abolished the press censorship, initiated trial by jury, and promised a reform of the electoral laws. The people were overjoyed with the events. 4

At this time Wagner and August Roekel, Wagner's muscial assistant, became members of the Vaterlandsverein (Fatherland Union). The Union, whose motto was, "The will of the people is law," was a federation of existing reform and political institutions. 5 Due to the recent successful events and an up-with-the-people attitude ever more social reform seemed not only needed but achievable. The union was still unsatisified with the government. It was not that they desired the abolition of the monarchy so much as the acknowledgement that capable, law-abiding citizens had a right to a voice in the selectiion of their rulers. The union had its own printing-press, and distributed largely political pamphlets.

Praeger tells us that "in his heart [Wagner] was not a revolutionist." 6 However, on June 16,1848, Wagner would read his famous Vaterslandsverein speech, later published as "What is the Relation that our Efforts bear to the Monarchy?"

Although Wagner urged the replacement of the monarchy with a republic, he stressed that the king could still remain the head of such a republic. Also in such a position, the king would enjoy a new found respect and love of his people. Although cloaked in the dramatic language of revolution, Wagner's speech was one of reform and reconciliation. Wagner himself would claim that the audience's reaction to his speech was appalling. "The astounded audience seemed to grasp nothing of this address . . . apart from my incidental blast at the officialdom of the royal court." 7 Roekel would say that the speech was "inspired by the angel of reconciliation." 8

During his address to a crowd in excess of one thousand, Wagner called for the ending of a priviledged class and the elimination of class distinctions.

As the aristocracy no longer consists of feudal lords and masters who can enslave and bodily chastise us at their will, they would do wisely to obliterate old grievances by relinquishing the last remnants of class distinction . . . To the aristocracy I would say, forget your ancestors, throw away your titles and every outward sign of courtly favour, and we will promise you to be generous and efface every remembrance of our ancestors. Let us be children of one father, brothers of one family. Listen to the warning-follow it freely and with a good will, for it is not to be slighted. Christ says, 'If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee, for it is better that one of thy members should perish than that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 9

Although Wagner believed that the king still had a place in the republic, there was certainly no room for obsolete courts and constitutions. Wagner went on

Once for all, resign the exclusive honour of ever being in the presence of our Monarch. Pray him to cease invest in you with a medley of useless court offices, distinctions, and privileges; in our time they make the court a subject for unpleasant relection. Discontinue to be lords of the chamber and lords of the robes, whose only utterance is 'our king,'— strip him of his tinsel, lackeys, and flunkeys, frivolous excrescences of a bad time . . . Withdraw from a court which is an almshouse for idle nobility, and exert yourselves, that it may become the court of a whole and happy people, which every individual will enjoy and will be ready to defend, and smile on a sovereign who is the father of a whole contented people. 10

Wagner continued voicing his populist stand regarding the right to vote and the arming of the populace.

We further insist upon the unconditional right of every natural born subject, when of age, to a vote. The more needy he be, the more his right, and the more earnestly will he aid in keeping the laws which he himself assisted in framing ahnd which, henceforth, are to protect him from any similar future state of need and misery. Our republican programme further includes a new system of national defence, in which every citizen capable of bearing arms shall be enrolled. No standing army. It shall be neither a standing army nor a militia, nor yet a reduction of the one nor an increase of the other. It must be a new creation, which in its process of development, will do away with the necessity of a standing army as well as a militia. 11

Finally the nationalist in Wagner addressed the now excited audience.

And when all who draw breath in our dear German land are united into one great free people, when class prejudices shall have ceased to exist, then do you supppose we have reached our goal? Oh, no; we are just equipped for the beginning. 12

Wagner went on to denounce money as the root of all evil. This denunciation is less out of political necessity or of any economic plan or plausibility. Wagner was suffering from huge debts and saw the revolution as a means to clearing his servitute to money. It becomes clear from Wagner's future writings that he is not really calling for an end to money itself so much as the power that money achieves through usury. He is opposed to using money to make money. He is opposed to the money lender (and even more so to the collector of such debts) This initial attack on the power of money and the materialistic way of life would later manifest itself in his diatribes against the Jews.

Can [man] have been destined by God to be the servile slave of inert base metal. We must decide whether money shall exert such degrading power over the image of God—man—as to render him the despicable slave of the passions of usury and avarice. The war against this existing evil will cause neither tears nor blood. The result of the foregone victory will be a universal conviction that the highest attainable happiness is commonwealth, a state in which as many active men as Mother Earth can supply with food will join in the well-ordered republic, supporting it by a fair exchange of labor, mutually suppplying each other's wants, and contributing to the universal happiness . . . We shall destroy the nebulous notion that money possesses any inherent power. And heaven will heap us to discover the true law by which this shall be proved, and dispel the false halo with which the unthinking mind invest this demon money. Then shall we root out the miseries engendered and nourished by public and secret usury, deceptive paper money and fraudulent speculations. This will tend to promote the emancipation of the human race. 13

Wagner's address which was given in the same year that Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto clearly denounced the communist position. Numerous writers believe that Wagner had to have been familiar with Marx. This is however unproven. Although Wagner frequently mentioned and cited those authors that he read, there is no mentioning of Marx in any of his extensive writings. The Communist Manifesto was originally published in very small quantities and it had virtually no effect on the revolutions of 1848 and '49. Few real revolutionaries had read the work at this time. 14 Had Wagner read the Manifesto, his position is stated clearly. His anti-communist diatribe could have come directly from the pages of Mein Kampf.

Do you think that you scent in this the teachings of communism? Are you then so stupid or wicked as to confound a theory so senseless as that of communism with that which is absolutely necessary to the salvation of the human race from its degraded servitude? Are you not capable of perceiving that the very attempt, even though it were allowed, of dividing mathematically the goods of this world, would be a senseless solution of a burning question, but which attempt, fortunately however, in its complete impossibility, carries its own death warrant. But though communism fails to supply the remedy, will you on that account deny the disease? 15

Wagner continued his attack on communism, accurately predicting, as evidenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the impossibility of its long-term existence.

Think not to solve the question by the giving of alms; acknowlege at once the inalienable rights of humanity, right vouchsafed by the Omnipotent, or else you may live to see the day that cruel scorn will be met by vengeance and brute force. Then the wild cry of victory might be that of communism, and although the impossibility of any lengthened duration of its principles as a ruling power can be boldly predicted, yet even the briefest reign of such a thraldom might be sufficient to expunge for a long time to come all the advantages of a civilization of two thousand years old. 16

The key to understanding Wagner's position lies in the next paragraph. As Taylor writes regarding the revolutions of 1848-1849, "Nationalism was a stronger force than economics in most of the revolutions . . . " 17 Gutman tells us in biographical account that Wagner perceived the Germans as gods "busy at their task of civilizing the globe." 18 It is questionable if Wagner saw the Germans as gods, but he certainly did believe that the Germans should spread civilization to the rest of the world.

Then shall we traverse the ocean in our ships, and found here and there a new young Germany, enriching it with the fruits of our achievements, and educating our children in our principles of human rights, so that they may be propagated everywhere . . . Our colonies shall be truly German, and from sunrise to sunset we shall contemplate a beautiful, free Germany, inhabited, as in the mother country, by a free people. The sun of German freedom and German gentleness shall alike warm and elevate Cossack, Frenchman, Bushmen, and Chinese. 19

Finally Wagner asks the obvious question,

Will all this be achieved under a monarchy? My answer is that throughout I have persistently kept it in view, but if you have any doubts of such a possibility, then it is you who pronounce the monarchical death-warrant. But if you agree with me and consider is possible as I realize it, then a republic is the exact and right thing, and we should but have to petition the king to become the first and most genuine republican . . . At the head of the free state—the republic, the king by lineal descent, will be what he in the noblest sense should be, viz. the first of the people, the freest of the free!20

Wagner was loudly applauded. By today's standards, Wagner's position may seem difficult to grasp. On the surface, it could seem that Wagner wants the best of all worlds. However, when read in conjunction with Wagner's later ideas and thoughts, the philosophy of the Vaterlandsverein speech becomes clear Wagner's socio-political philosophy would manifest itself in what has been called Völkisch Idealism. Idealism is the "doctrine that gives primacy to spirit over matter and explains the world in spiritual terms." 21 Stackelberg writes, "idealism expressed the practical urge and obligation, so strong in the German tradition, to regenerate reality and transform humanity by infusing existence with timeless moral and spiritual ideals." 22 The German term "völkisch" is derived from "Volk", the German word which combines the meaning of a people, a nation , and a race.

Wagner, like many thinkers of his time had become obsessed with various social issues. The plight of the German worker in a rapidly dehumanizing industrial society. "In völkisch ideology the social question was transmuted into a question of race. The Volk stood for a unified people linked not merely by a common culture but by the mystical bonds of blood. Not classes but peoples and nations confronted each other in conflict." 23 "Idealism implied a certain contempt for material existence, an attitude that perpetuated in more secular form the Christian renunciation of worldliness. German idealist ethics reaffirmed the Christian view that the pursuit of material happiness is unworthy of the human spirit. The proper goal of human endeavor is the moral perfection of the soul." 24 For Wagner, Art was the instrument by which the regeneration of society would be achieved. Art, for Wagner was, "Religion represented in living form." 25 This is the real distinction of Wagnerian Idealism.

It is not the purpose of this volume to examine the origins of Völkisch Idealism. For our purposes it is merely necessary to show the similarity of the Wagnerian Philosophy to Völkisch Idealism. Two prominent exponents of this school of thought, Heinrich von Stein and Houston Stewart Chamberlain were very influential Wagnerians. Stein lived in Bayreuth and was hired by the Wagners to educate their son, Siegfried. Houston Stewart Chamberlain would come to live in Haus Wahnfried and marry Wagner's daughter, Eva.

The difference between Wagner's political thought and that of his fellow revolutionaries was that Wagner was strongly anti-communist. The Völkisch Idealists were strongly anti-communist as well as anti-democratic for both political forms were based on materialism. When Wagner speaks of communism, he speaks of the "mathematical division of the goods of the world." The entire emphasis of communism is on capital, materialism, and redistribution of the wealth. Just as in democracy, where the greatest rewards are given to those with the greatest accumulation of material wealth.

2. Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin, the famous Russian anarchist was born in 1814, one year after Wagner. It has been said that wherever revolution occurred in Europe in the 1840's, Bakunin was there. Bakunin along with Karl Marx were the two best known revolutionaries of the 19th century. In the years to come, those who hated the Jews and the communists were quick to declare Marx's Jewish racial origins. Karl Marx's father, who had come from a long line of distinquished rabbis, was born Herschel Halevi Marx. Karl's mother, Henriette Pressborck was the daughter of a rabbi from Holland and her ancesters were rabbis in Hungary. 26 Although the leading revolutionaries of the 19th century, the Russian "Father of Anarchy" and the Jewish "Father of Communism" were poles apart in their beliefs. Bakunin was an idealist who believed that revolution was the best way to destroy tyranny. 27 Bakunin believed that the State, set up on the ruins of private property would reproduce the same tyranny which had previously existed under capitalism. His goal was the communal ownership of all property with the utmost minimization and even the complete abolition of the State. 28 Bakunin feared that the Marxists would surrender all the instruments of capitalism, such as land, railroads, and mines, to a more unified and powerful state tyranny. 29 After 1848, Marx was expelled from Prussia and set up a comfortable life style in London while Bakunin went to the barricades. Bakunin would write of Marx, "Marx called me a sentimental idealist, and he was right; I called him a vain man, perfidious and crafty, and I also was right." 30

Wagner would recount his initial meetings with Bakunin in his autobiography. The first encounter was apparently in the home of Roekel. Wagner was initially in awe of the revolutionary. Wagner writes, "He always emerged victorious; it was impossible to counter successfully any of his confidently expressed arguments." 31 Wagner also tells of an encounter with Bakunin while rehearsing a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Bakunin had snuck into the theatre and called out to Wagner that "if all music were to be lost in the coming world conflagration, we should risk our own lives to preserve this symphony." 32 It is perhaps this sentiment which so endeared Bakunin to Wagner's soul.

As the winds of change swept through Germany, Wagner too would be swept up and his calling for revolution would echo the most extreme writers of his age. In his Bakuninist essay, Die Revolution (The Revolution), Wagner glorified the rising up of the people. Wagner was now enraptured with thought of revolution. Gone is the language of reform. The essay published by Roeckel now reads of Bakuninist destruction. Revolution, "the eternal destroyer" has become God.

Whatever stands, must fall: such is the everlasting law of Nature, such the condition of Life; and I, the eternal destroyer, fulfill, the law and fashion ever- youthful life . . . for I am Revolution . . . I am the only God, to whom each creature tetifies, who spans and gives both life and happiness to all that is! 33

It is in this vein that Wagner began work on his magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Originally entitled, Siegfried's Tod (Siegfried's Death), it tells the tale of a hero redeeming the materialistic world and setting up proper rule. It is only after reading the works of Schopenhauer that Wagner would alter his work to the form now recognized by the world.

3. "To the Barricades"

In May, revolution finally broke out in Dresden. The Saxon government, under Prussian influence, had rejected the Imperial Consititution drawn up by the Frankfort Parliament. The chamber was dissolved and public demonstrations were prohibited. The foreign minister summoned Prussian troops to his aid. The rebels attacked the guard in the arsenal. The King and the government withdrew to their fortress in Konigstein. 34

Wagner threw pamphlets to the guard outside the arsenal. "Are you with us against foreign troops?" 35 While the people, who established a provisional government hoped for a peaceful resolution, Bakunin recognized the inevitability of a well-planned Prussian military offensive. Bakunin was correct. At noon on May 6th, the Prussian troops began an offensive supported by cannon fire. Wagner made his way through the barricaded streets to the tower of the Kreuzkirche, the highest point in Dresden, where he reported on troop movements. 36 The fighting had become intense with each side taking and retaking the barricades. Bullets began bouncing all around Wagner's observation post. He decided that he should get his wife, Minna out of danger. Making his way through the Dresden streets, he made his way back to his home. Wagner managed to get Minna out of danger to neighboring Chemnitz.

Wagner then returned to Dresden. He describes the picture vividly in his autobiography,

What I saw offered a truly horrible picture, for I was passing through those parts of the city where everyone was prepared for house-to-house fighting. The unceasing roar of big and small arms fire made the other sounds of the armed men calling to one another from barricade to barricade, or from one shattered house to another, seem merely an uncanny murmur. 37

When Wagner met Bakunin again, the anarchist would shout, "You're a long way from your violin here, you should have stayed with it, musician." 38

Wagner would volunteer for a mission to travel to Freiburg and attempt to have vehicles requisitioned to move additional military reservists to assist the rebels in Dresden. After completing his mission Wagner would once again attempt to return to Dresden. On the way he met Bakunin and the rebel army in retreat. Wagner would shout out, "Where are you headed?" The tired reply was, "Home, it's all over in Dresden!" 39 The weary group made way back to Chemnitz. Wagner decided to stay in an inn while the others rested in a hotel, where they were captured. Through the intervention of fate, Wagner managed to escape. Wanted posters would be issued calling him a "Politically dangerous individual."40 Police searched the countryside for Wagner.

At this time, Franz Liszt, the famous pianist and Wagner's future father-in-law, proved a friend in a time of need. He helped Wagner make way to the village, Magdala and procured a passport for him. Wagner took a last farewell of his wife, Minna at Jena and on May 28th entered Switzerland. 41 For the next eleven years Wagner was a political outcast from the country that he loved.


1. Deathridge, Wagner p.31.
2. Irving, Destruction of Dresden p.185.
3. Praeger, Wagner as I Knew him p.154.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p.155.
6. Ibid.
7. Wagner, My Life p.365.
8. Ibid.
9. Praeger, p.156-157.
10.Ibid., p.157.
11.Ibid., p.158.
13.Ibid., p.158-159.
, Introduction to The Communist Manifesto p.7.
15.Praeger, p. 159.
17.Taylor, p.25.
18.Gutman, Wagner: The man His Mind and His music p.120.
19.Praeger, p. 160.
21.Stackelberg, Idealism Debased p. ix
23.Ibid. p.4.
24.Ibid. p.2.
25.Ibid. p.9.
26.Kamenka, The Portable Karl Marx p.xiii
27.Reed, Controversy of Zion p. 169.
29.Forman, Anarchism p.34.
30.Reed, p.171.
31.Wagner, My Life p.385.
32.Ibid. p.384.
33.Wagner, The Revolution , PW Vol XIII pp.232-238.
34.Jacobs, The Master Musician's Wagner p.51.
35.Wagner, My Life p. 394.
36.Ibid. pp. 396-397.
37.Ibid. p.404.
38.Ibid. p.405.
39.Ibid. p.407.
40.Gutman, p.136
41.Jacobs, pp.52-53.


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