Within his historical context, the music of Wilhelm Richard Wagner represented elemental chaos. Outside of his historical context, it reminds us more of order gone horribly wrong. It is not entirely Wagner’s fault that his music provided the soundtrack to the Third Reich, but the fact that it did is undeniably central to his legacy—just as the swastika, a design so ancient and so simple that it has been found carved on 12,000-year-old mammoth tusks, has rightly been rejected (at least in the West) as an execrable and irredeemably repulsive symbol of hatred. Our oldest religious metaphors tell us that spilled blood can stain something as benign and necessary as the ground itself; it has certainly stained the music of Wagner.
On the bicentennial of his birth two years ago, many newspapers asked a variation on the question of whether Wagner can be redeemed, whether he can be forgiven—if not for his own occasional sputter of petty antisemitism, then at least for how his music was appropriated by the Nazi regime after his death. But he is long dead himself, and only the dead truly have the right to forgive him, so that is not a question I feel inclined to ask. The truth is that Wagner’s music is both frequently performed and historically problematic, and there’s nothing another round of critical assessments is likely to do to change either of those realities. If he is more innocent than we imagine, that does not change the way his work was used; if he is more guilty, that does not change the scope of his legacy (a domain that, to a greater or lesser extent, includes us all).
Whether we enjoy Wagner or condemn him or both, he is without question one of the most influential composers in the history of European classical music, the single most influential figure in the history of German opera, and the modern age’s preeminent interpreter of the Norse legends. More importantly than that, he was an awkward, fallible person who was driven by the full range of human passions to produce bold, sophisticated work of great beauty—a beauty that taps into our deepest emotions, and a beauty that has been used to manipulate them towards sinister purposes.
1. Unlike most famous composers, he had no unusual interest in music as a child
Most biographies of composers begin with a discussion of their precociousness, but Wagner had no particular interest in music until he’d discovered the theater as a teenager and realized that most successful plays of his time were set to music. He wrote his first compositions under the supervision of a music teacher when he was 16, which is quite impressive by ordinary standards but does not suggest a burning lifelong desire to compose instrumental pieces. Classical instruments, for Wagner, were a means of achieving a dramatic effect.
2. His antisemitism was rooted, at first, in petty jealousy and youthful alienation
The narrative of Wagner’s antisemitism writes itself: he was living in antisemitic times, and it would have been quite possible for someone who had limited contact with German Jews to develop hostile abstract prejudices grounded in a nascent form of the country’s 20th-century ethnic nationalism. But Wagner actually grew up in a Jewish part of Leipzig, and his earliest—and most notorious—antisemitic piece of writing was transparently motivated by petty jealousy.
Wagner was a struggling and largely unappreciated artist when he wrote the essay Das Judenthum in Der Musik under the alias “K. Freigedank” (“K. Freethink”) in 1850. The two most prominent composers in the country were Giacomo Meyerbeer and Moses Mendelssohn; both were Jews, and neither wrote in Wagner’s style. He attributed their success to what he regarded as their soulless and insidious Jewishness, and seemed to attribute his own lack of popularity to what he considered the negative pervasive influence of Jewish composers on German culture.
Later, after he had achieved some success, he inexplicably expanded and republished the essay under his own name in 1869. Some ten years later he would meet the proto-Nazi theorist Arthur de Gobineau and make several more unfortunate comments about Germany’s Jewish population, though he did not buy completely into de Gobineau’s white supremacist ideology—Wagner believed instead that Christianity was true supremacy, and that anyone who converted to Christianity, regardless of ancestry, would be saved. Still, he never denounced Das Judenthum in Der Musik. That fact, combined with the decision several of his descendants would later make to fully endorse Nazism, has cemented Wagner’s reputation as an antisemite.
3. He popularized leitmotifs, which would later become the foundation of many classical film scores
It’s hard to imagine what film soundtracks would sound like without leitmotifs—melodies associated with specific characters, events, or themes that can be used to program the audience with subconscious triggers. The original Star Wars trilogy makes particularly effective use of leitmotifs (which may be part of the reason why it’s referred to as “space opera”), and this is central to its rewatchability: every time you’re moved by a leitmotif, it becomes a little more effective.
When we hear John Williams’ “Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” for example, the (transparently Wagnerian) melody triggers fans’ memories of the character’s entire story arc. After you’ve seen the trilogy a few dozen (or hundred) times, the melody recalls, all at once, a powerful monstrous shape and a satanic tempter and a wounded, dying father—invincibility and insidiousness and tragic vulnerability—which gives a depth and complexity to Darth Vader’s scenes that would not otherwise be present.
Wagner is often credited with inventing leitmotifs. He didn’t—they were already in use by the time he came on the scene—but he was the first composer to use them extensively, and he was the first composer of prominence to make leitmotifs central to his work.
4. When he designed his own opera house, he took extra care to hide the orchestra and keep the focus on vocalists
As his early years demonstrated, Wagner initially approached opera from the direction of theater rather than music. A good argument could be made that he retained this priority for the rest of his life, especially if you look at the design of his customized opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Featuring a massive stage and a cramped, hidden chamber in which to hide the orchestra, its design guaranteed that the audience would be looking at the vocalists and set design—not the orchestra.
5. Contrary to his gruff, austere image, he was a wisecracking, energetic womanizer who dressed like Graffiti Bridge-era Prince
Although Wagner looks like a stiff, moralistic, and tightly-wound character in surviving photographs, this is more likely an artifact of 19th-century Germany’s formal portraiture style than Wagner’s own personality. In practice, he was a compulsive flirt who fairly openly cheated on his wives. Contemporaneous documents also suggest that he dressed like late-1980s Prince, favoring heavy perfume, silk underwear, ruffled shirts, and women’s jackets. And then there’s the matter of his sense of humor—although he usually avoided writing humorous pieces, a credible number of his contemporaries swore that he was witty, slightly mischievous, and generally a lot of fun to be around.
6. He was at the center of the “War of the Romantics,” the schism that to a great extent defined 19th-century German classical music
If you were a fan of German music during the 19th century, you would have almost certainly been caught up in the drama between the more traditional fans of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann and the more radical fans of Wagner and Liszt. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche holds the unusual distinction of having outspokenly entered the fray on both sides, initially defending Wagner in forceful terms before changing his mind and declaring his work dangerous.
Most composers of the era made some attempt to stay above the drama, but Wagner—who had already, after all, published an antisemitic tract against several of his rivals twice—enthusiastically participated. When he wasn’t distracted by interpersonal drama, German nationalism, or his own dubious racial theories, he proved to be an innovative philosopher of music whose writing on the subject is still widely studied to this day.