Term Paper: Music History

Pages: 8 (2379 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Music  ·  Buy This Paper

Wagner: His Time and Beyond

Composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist Richard Wagner lived during a vibrant time for German culture: the romantic era. Among his contemporaries were some of that country's greatest and most influential thinkers, like Nietsche, Marx, and even the twilight of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Wagner's ideas of "total artwork," (Gesamtkunstwerk) based in the Greek philosophy of total unity of the arts, inspired him to be a nineteenth century renaissance man, as he attempted to synthesize artistically poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts.

Wagner was not only a musician -- he was much, much more. He was indeed a national hero and political force. Germans of all sorts -- writers, philosophers, and politicians -- all attested to his profound influence on Germany. Wagner, whose musical talents were unrivaled in the age of Bismarck, was a great egoist. Born two years after the statesmen into a theatrical family, Wagner demonstrated contempt for the nobility of Bismarck, and, like his contemporary Karl Marx, was quite the revolutionary. Both scorned the bourgeois nineteenth century, but exhibited as well a fondness for the time. Wagner sympathized with the political worldview of Karl Marx -- such as the nefarious nature of property. This represents a contention between him and Bismarck, the latter having banned socialists in his fledgling authoritarian state.

Wagner thoroughly enjoyed the theatrical liveliness of the newly rich, but distrusted the bourgeoisie. His music was played by a grand orchestra that embodied the sounds and expectations of the industrial and imperial age. Indeed, he was a romantic artist, who desired the remodeling of the entire world. He desired for his music to spurn a rebirth of the German people and a new civilization. To be sure, his music did make a lasting impact on the development of the German political system and psychology, and so therefore that of the world. His legacy extends further than his music, for Wagner penned a multitude of music dramas, essays and articles. The characters he created protested the nineteenth century bourgeois world, against men without myth and passion for greatness. His philosophy, interpretation of history and society was uniquely German. Wagner saw himself as not only a great musician, but as a prophet and savior as well.

The German Revolution of 1848 was a monumental event for Wagner. The defeat pushed him to exile, where after he returned twelve years later. He would go onto live a life of splendor and luxury seldom achieved by any musician. In 1848, the time of revolution, he was a relatively unknown musician. Unhappy, he felt his value was overlooked by the aristocratic court. Henry Malherbe, a French music critic, wrote of Wagner's work in his essay "Richard Wagner, revolutionnaire total" that "without doubt the Tetralogy is the most striking work of the 1848 revolution and the most outstanding artistic event of that period of European history…a savage gospel of anarchy, it is so deeply steeped in poetry and dreams that its dangerous significance may not be noticed. Thus its subterranean message, full of imagery, can permeate the souls with greater ease. Wagner wishes to attach himself to an ideal of guilelessness. To that end he sets out to cut all his ties with the human family and to ruin utterly the civilization of his time. The Germany corner of his character can be detected in this frenzy as well as in the lack of precision, the naivete and the nebulous mysticism, with which he envisages the future, should the downfall he desires and foresees come to pass."

Wagner found inspiration in the old sagas of the Edda, or primitive, pre-christian myth. Wagner interprets these works as a rejection of civilized life. His nihilism seethes through in Wotan's Resignation (in Die Walkure, Act II, Scene 2): "In whatever I do, I find always only myself, and I loathe it…I must leave what I love; I must murder what I woo; deceitfully I must betray whoever trusts me…What I built must break down! I abandon my work. One thing I alone demand, the end, the end!...What I deeply loathe I give it to thee as my heir, the futile splendor of the Divine: Let thine envy greedily gnaw it up!

During the 1840's, Wagner was significantly influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher, and of Young Germany, a group of writers. In May 1848, Wagner demanded in a letter to Professor Franz Wigard, the Saxon representative in the Frankfurt assembly, German Parliament sovereignty, the arming of the folk, and a military alliance with France. That same month, the revolutionaries in Vienna received a poetical greeting from Wagner, in which he complimented them for drawing their swords. In those years, Wagner's thoughts were directed toward the future. He was against the past and present way of life, while harboring sympathies for old German orders. His hope resided in the realm of myth and saga, where he dreamed a new, Wagnerian world. Fascinated like so many in his generation by the medieval splendor of the Hohenstaufen Reich, he wrote in 1832 Die Hohenstaufen. The Hohenstaufen was a house of German kings that lasted from 1138-1254. In the 1840's he wrote the text for two operas, one of which dealt with Manfred, the son of Frederick II. The other exalted Frederic I Barbarossa.

Clearly, Wagner sympathized with the radical political and social beliefs of the 1848 movement. The aspirations of the 1848 movement, once the German people were liberated from caste and class and money and property, was to setup the universal Reich or world empire. "Then we shall sail across the seas, plant here and there a young Germany…bring up the noblest of children, children like unto gods. Better we shall manage than the Spaniards, to whom the new world became a papal slaughterhouse, otherwise than the English who have it into a peddler's tray. We shall do things Germanly and grandly; from its rising to its setting the sun will look upon a beautiful and free Germany, and on the borders of daughter-lands as on those of their mother, no downtrodden unfree folk shall live: the rays of German freedom and gentleness shall light and warm the French and the Cossacks, the Bushmen and Chinese," wrote Wagner.

One thing seemed clear to Wagner during the time of Revolution. The old order, which stunted his artistic creativity, had run its course, and was to be deconstructed in favor of a new order. In this order, Germany would be leader. In his view, property -- which at this time Wagner did not own -- was the root of all evil. In 1849, Wagner wrote a poem entitled "Die Noth" (Want of Misery), wherein he celebrated the disorder of the revolution. Wagner was forced into exile, just as Marx had been. After 12 years of exile, Wagner returned to Germany. His hope from the revolution had faded, and he now believed, "a new world of suffering was opening out for [him] as an artist."

Wagner's advents to opera transformed the genre considerable; for example, his work did not use the "number" opera, meaning there was no delineation between recitative and aria styles. Instead, the orchestra is showcased symphonically, and the many themes are developed during the operas course. His unusually long operas, intended to be played through the course of an afternoon or evening, vividly developed their protagonists through melodies and harmonies. Many years after this death, Wagner's music would take a prominent stage in Germany, as the favorite music of the Fuehrer. (Kohn 190-214)

In the thirties in Germany, under the Nazi regime, all music produced had to fit standards of "good" German music. This policy fit into the evolution of the German authoritarian state, in which the state dictates the movement of culture. This led to suppression of many artists and their works. In their propaganda, the Nazis attempted to strike equilibrium between censorship and creativity in music so as to keep the German folk entertained enough that they did not become to alienated from Nazi culture. The Nazi policy regarding musicians and artists: (USF)

1. Loyal Nazi members who were talented musicians were guaranteed a job.

2. Loyal Nazi members who were not talented musicians were not guaranteed a job.

3. Any non-Jewish person who demonstrated a "genius" for music and was a member of the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) was permitted employment. This exception in policy permitted musicians like conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and composer Richard Strauss to continue working.

Hitler and Goebbels listed the three master composers who encompassed good German music. They were Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Anton Bruckner. Richard Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer, and, apparently, he carried Wagner's music with him during World War 1. By Hitler's request, Wagner's music was oft performed at party rallies and other functions, sometimes serving as a last minute replacement of other composers, such as Strauss. Moreover, Hitler and Wagner shared similar worldviews. In the 1850's, Wagner wrote an anti-Semitic booklet titled Das Judetum in die Musik, in which… [END OF PREVIEW]

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