The Tristan Chord Wagner and Philosophy

Bryan Magee




Trade Paperback

424 Pages



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Richard Wagner's devotees have ranged from the subtlest minds (Proust) to the most brutal (Hitler). The enduring fascination of his works arises from his singular fusion of musical innovation and theatrical daring, but also from his largely overlooked engagement with the boldest investigations of modern philosophy.

Now, Bryan Magee traces Wagner's involvement in the intellectual quests of his age, from his youthful embrace of revolutionary socialism, to a Schopenhauerian rejection of the world as illusion, to the near-Buddhist resignation of his final years. Mapping the influence of ideas on Wagner's art, Magee shows how abstract thought can permeate musical work and stimulate creations of great power and beauty. And he confronts the Wagner whose paranoia, egocentricity, and anti-Semitism are as repugnant as his achievements are glorious.

At once a biography of the composer, an overview of his times, an account of nineteenth-century opera, and an insight into the intellectual and technical aspects of music, Magee's lucid study offers the best explanation of W. H. Auden's judgment that Wagner, for all his notorious difficulties, was "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived."


Praise for The Tristan Chord

"In The Tristan Chord, [Magee] extends the themes of his much admired short book Aspects of Wagner from 33 years ago into what amounts to an intellectual biography of this most multifaceted of composers . . . This is an enlightening and exciting exploration of a great artist and cultural icon . . . For those who love Wagner, The Tristan Chord is quite simply indispensable . . . The core of this book is Mr. Magee's effort to trace in some detail Wagner's shifting philosophical convictions. This is by no means as marginal as it might sound, since of all the great composers, the autodidact Wagner was the most fiercely intellectual, reading and even writing many books in which he poured out his beliefs on all matters. It is Mr. Magee's contention, and most persuasively argued it is, that underlying all those convictions was his devotion to the varying strands of classic German philosophy . . . Earlier writers on Wagner have dealt with these issues, but few with the clarity and focus and professional expertise of Mr. Magee. And Mr. Magee goes further: he explores how Wagner's shifting beliefs either shaped or reflected his shifts in compositional practice . . . The Tristan Chord should take its place among any Wagnerian's short list of required reading. And however set the convictions of those who abhor Wagner, it would be a valuable book for them, too, to read."—John Rockwell, The New York Times

"A spirited and insightful exploration of the interplay between philosophy and music in Wagner's opera. One could not ask for a more reliable guide . . . Bringing together all the different sides of this manifold genius, Magee succeeds as few before him in making sense of Wagner as a whole."—Charles Larmore, The New Republic

"Highly engaging and tremendously well written . . . Rich in historical detail and sophisticated in its arguments, The Tristan Chord provides an excellent model of how to write about music in its historical context, and makes room for a different Wagner than the one we thought we knew."—David Weininger, The Boston Globe

"Magee's short book, Aspects of Wagner, introduced countless people to a range of issues surrounding Wagner's life and work. Now he has produced a big book, taking the challenge of Wagner head-on. Magee sees that Wagner has to be understood as a whole, if only in order to put his virtues and vices as a composer and thinker into a meaningful relationship . . . Magee has opened up Wagner's intellectual world like no one before him."—Literary Review

"A wonderful book, fascinating, absorbing, brilliantly informative, highly personal in its engagement with ideas and the transcendent music that expresses them, and brave in its head-on treatment of Wagner's anti-Semitism and the noxious cloud of ill associations that surround him and his art as a result . . . A remarkable achievement."—Financial Times (London)

"Measured, informative and well-judged . . . Bryan Magee is a man of passionate enthusiasms, for which many people have reason to be grateful."—Sunday Times (London)

"Because of Wagner's reputation as a proto-Nazi, many music lovers avoid his work—or enjoy it as a guilty pleasure. Yes, Wagner did indulge in odious anti-Semitism, and, yes, Hitler adored his music. But Magee convincingly demonstrates that Wagner kept his anti-Semitism out of his music and that most Nazi leaders regarded the composer's works as antithetical to their movement. The young Wagner advocated the radical politics of the left, and when he subsequently abandoned the revolution, he did so not to embrace the politics of the right but rather to repudiate all political thought in favor of metaphysics. Those metaphysics bear the distinctive marks of Schopenhauer, credited by Magee with inspiring the composer to otherwise unattainable operatic feats (in, for instance, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal). Yet unlike any other creative artist, Wagner contributed as much to philosophy as he took from it, decisively shaping his friend Nietzsche's views through sheer strength of character. A carefully researched account of a fiery personality who transmuted daunting ideas into compelling art."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"Important . . . The Tristan Chord is the most exciting, well-conceived, and stimulating book written on Richard Wagner at least in the last decade. Those of us who love Wagner are more than fortunate to have Bryan Magee among our number."—Speight Jenkins, General Director of the Seattle Opera

"In this superb volume, Magee combines his two enthusiasms in another lbeautifully written book . . . To the genius of Wagner this book is a splendid tribute."—Ralph Blumenau, Philosophy Today

"Magee, a British writer on philosophy, music, and theater criticism and a former member of Parliament, has made a remarkable contribution to the already extensive literature on the life and works of Wagner. His central thesis that Wagner's intense study of philosophy had a profound influence on his compositions is lucidly presented in 17 chapters, each rich with historical detail and intellectual discourse. The chapters proceed in rough chronological sequence; we first read of the young Wagner as a left-wing revolutionary and end with his mature, complex relationship with Nietzsche. In the central part of the book, Magee provides an overview of Schopenhauer's philosophy and reveals the extent to which Wagner completely overhauled his own values in order to embrace that thinker's world view. Readers to whom all this may appear somewhat arcane and daunting will be pleasantly surprised by the eminently readable nature of the book. Magee's text is not only illuminating but also highly personal and enormously engaging. The lengthy appendix, in which he tackles head-on the thorny issue of Wagner's anti-Semitism, is a brilliant, balanced discussion and is alone worth the price of the book . . . Those readers already passionate about Wagner's works will find new reasons to appreciate them, and those who have avoided his music will find the book a revelation and may be inspired to rethink their phobia."—Larry Lipkis, Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Library Journal

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Bryan Magee has had a distinguished career as a university professor, music and theater critic, member of Parliament, and author. He is well known for two popular BBC television series on philosophy. Among his internationally acclaimed books are The Story of Philosophy, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, and Aspects of Wagner.
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  • Bryan Magee

  • Bryan Magee has had a distinguished career as a university professor, music and theater critic, member of Parliament, and author. He is well known for two popular BBC television series on philosophy. Among his internationally acclaimed books are The Story of Philosophy, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, and Aspects of Wagner.