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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Wagner, Nietzsche, and the Ring

In the beginning was the tone: octave E-flats in the double basses, sustained in a barely audible rumble. Five bars in, bassoons add a pair of B-flats, five steps higher. Together, these notes form the interval of the perfect fifth. Like the fifth that glimmers at the start of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is an emanation of primordial nature, the hum of the cosmos at rest. Then eight horns enter one after another, in upward-wheeling patterns, which resemble the natural harmonic series generated by a vibrating string. Other instruments add their voices, in gradually quickening pulses. As the mass of sound gathers and swirls and billows in the air, the underlying tonality of E-flat does not budge. Only after 136 bars—four to five minutes in performance—does the harmony change, tilting toward A-flat. The prolonged stasis engenders a new sense of time, although it is difficult to say what kind of time it is: perhaps an instant passing in slow motion, perhaps eons passing in a blur.

This is the prelude to Das Rheingold, which is itself the Vorabend, the preliminary evening, to the Ring. The orchestra represents the river Rhine, the repository of the magic gold from which a ring of unimaginable power can be forged. In his autobiography, My Life, Wagner relates how the opening came to him while he was staying in La Spezia, on the Ligurian Sea, in September 1853. Resting at his hotel, he fell into “a kind of somnambulistic state,” and the prelude began sounding in his head. Although biographers doubt that it happened exactly that way, we can surmise that the river is not purely German, that it flows from deeper, warmer waters.

“It is, so to speak, the world’s lullaby,” Wagner said. Out of the rocking cradle a universe emerges. The golden triads of Western harmony gestate from a fundamental tone; then language gestates from music. The Rhinemaidens swim up from the depths, singing a mixture of nonsense syllables and German words. Wagner told Nietzsche he had in mind the phrase “Eia popeia,” sung for centuries by mothers to lull their babies.

Wagner is employing a highly stylized version of the old Germanic verse scheme of Stabreim, which is structured around internal alliteration. The affect is epic, the language abstract. The modernists paid heed: T. S. Eliot quotes the Rhinemaidens in The Waste Land, and Joyce has them swim in the river of Finnegans Wake.

The prelapsarian bliss lasts for only twenty-one more bars before the harmony darkens to C minor and Flosshilde warns her fellow maidens that they are neglecting their guardian duties. The Rhine tries to resume its course in the key of B-flat, but it is again tugged into the relative minor. The double basses, having ceased their cosmic drone, play a loping pizzicato. Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf, has entered, his eyes fixed first on the maidens and then on the gold. Wagner sets up a clear duality between the beauty of nature and the malevolent energy of a subhuman outsider. Alberich is the chief antagonist of the Ring, although not necessarily its chief villain. Wotan, the chief of the gods, also lusts after the gold and falls prey to its illusions.

In 1876, in advance of the Ring premiere, Nietzsche, then a kind of intellectual publicist for the composer, issued a pamphlet titled “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth.” Amid much flummery, Nietzsche devises as succinct a synopsis of the cycle as can be found: “The tragic hero is a god who thirsts for power and who, after pursuing all paths to gain it, binds himself through contracts, loses his freedom, and becomes entangled in the curse that is inseparable from power.” Needless to say, the topic is eternally relevant. The story of the fatal ring can always speak to the latest soul-stealing technological marvel, the latest swearing of vengeance, the latest rotting empire. The contradiction at the heart of the project is that the Ring is itself an assertion of power—huge in size, huge in volume, huge in ambition. Wagner criticized monumentality as an artistic value, calling for a vital folk art that spoke to its time instead of gesturing toward posterity. Nonetheless, the monumental and the Wagnerian were fated to become synonymous.

When, in the wake of the Ring, Nietzsche broke with Wagner, he thought of himself as a fugitive slave. Although he disavowed the man, he could not disavow the work. During the twelve years of philosophical activity left to him, he continued to wrestle with the composer’s shadow. In Ecce Homo, he writes: “I actually have it on my conscience that such a high estimation of the cultural value of this movement arose.” The movement is Wagnerei—Wagnerism. Nietzsche is referring to his early gushing on the Meister’s behalf, but it is the later, ostensibly anti-Wagnerian writing that shows the movement in full flower. The rejection of Wagner results only in a new interpretation of Wagner. Such is the infernal logic of his protean presence at the dawn of the twentieth century. As Nietzsche eventually admitted: “Wagner sums up modernity. It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian.”


The revolutionary year 1848, which gave rise to the Ring, shook the old European order but failed to bring it down. In Paris, three days of street protests in February brought about the abdication of King Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Second Republic. Similar revolts took place in German-speaking lands, and a national parliament attempted to form in Frankfurt. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in London in February; communist, socialist, and anarchist groups organized across the continent. Amid the tumult, counterrevolutionary forces regained the upper hand. The culminating moment—famously described by Marx as historical tragedy repeating itself as farce—was the dissolution of the Second Republic by Louis-Napoléon, Bonaparte’s nephew, at the end of 1851.

The Dresden uprising of 1849, with the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient exhorting the crowd from a window

Wagner, then in his mid-thirties, charged into the melee. Since 1843, he had been serving as the Royal Saxon Hofkapellmeister in Dresden, his reputation founded on his sprawling grand opera Rienzi, a dramatization of populist rebellion in fourteenth-century Rome. Over the course of his Dresden tenure, Wagner became increasingly attuned to leftist politics. By June 1848, he was writing poetry about cries of freedom resounding from France. In a fiery speech before the Vaterlandsverein, a democratic-nationalist association, he demanded the obliteration of the aristocracy, the imposition of universal suffrage, the elimination of usury, an enlightened German colonization of the world, and, somehow, the self-reform of the king of Saxony into the “first of the folk, the freest of the free.” Except for the German-nationalist element, these proposals resembled the philosophy of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who envisioned a society made up of communal units, free of state control but traditional in character.

In the same period, Wagner was delving into old Germanic tales of the hero Siegfried, who slays the dragon Fafnir, wins the dragon’s gold hoard, and dies with a spear in his back. Politics plainly motivated this turn: the gold represents the capitalist enemy, Siegfried a new German nation. More broadly, Wagner became engrossed by the evolution and function of myth. Sometime in 1848, he began writing “The Wibelungs,” an impressively convoluted essay in comparative mythology, which muses on the interrelationship of pagan legends, Christian lore, the Nibelung treasure, the Holy Grail, and historical personalities such as Charlemagne and Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. What fascinated the composer was how the same stories keep getting told in different guises: light against dark, warmth against cold, hero against dragon.

Wagner’s subsequent interweaving of mythic stories in operatic form caused him to be described—by none other than the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss—as “the incontestable father of the structural analysis of myths.” The extension of ancient cycles into the present day brings with it an unsettling implication: the same dark, cold, dragon-like adversaries will be present in modern Germany. Ominously, Wagner compares the murder of Siegfried to the Crucifixion, remarking that “we still avenge Christ on the Jews today.”

In the fall of 1848, Wagner emerged with a prose sketch titled “The Nibelung Myth,” outlining a plot roughly equivalent to that of Götterdämmerung. It includes an elaborate backstory of gods, giants, dwarves, heroes, and Valkyries—essentially, the whole of the Ring in a few dense pages. The scenario combines material from various Nordic and Germanic sources—the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Volsunga saga of Iceland; the Old Norwegian Þiðreks saga; the German Nibelungenlied; Jacob Grimm’s German Mythology—into an inspired mishmash that owes as much to the composer’s unruly imagination as to the extant sources.

The Ring itself is a new contraption. The old stories make mention of hoards and magic rings, but only in Wagner’s version does the gold yield a weapon of absolute omnipotence. The one vague antecedent is Plato’s Ring of Gyges, which makes the wearer invisible and thereby endows him with “the powers of a god.” Even a just man might misbehave with such a device at his command, Plato suggests. Likewise, Wagner’s Ring bends all to its will. Its companion gadget, the Tarnhelm, enables one to disappear, change shape, or travel far in an instant. It is surely no accident that such magic lore found new life in the late nineteenth century, when technologies of mass manipulation and mass destruction were coming into view.

“The Nibelung Myth” begins not with an image of natural splendor, as in the finished cycle, but with a sinister picture of an infested earth:

Out of the womb of night and death there germinated a people, which lives in Nibelheim (Mist-Home), that is, in gloomy underground chasms and caves: they are called Nibelungs; with shifty, restless activity they burrow (like worms in a dead body) in the bowels of the earth … Alberich seized the bright and noble Rhinegold, abducted it from the water’s depths, and with great and cunning art forged from it a ring, which gave him supreme power over his entire kin … Alberich strove for domination of the world and everything contained in it.

The good-versus-evil duality breaks down, though, when Wagner makes the noble gods complicit in the general corruption. “The peace by which they achieved domination is not grounded in reconciliation; it is accomplished through force and cunning. The intent of their higher world order is moral consciousness, but the wrong they are pursuing adheres to themselves.” In this early version, Wotan survives the upheaval, like the reformed monarch in Wagner’s Vaterlandsverein speech, and Alberich is set free with the rest of humanity.

Wagner fleshed out the story in a prose draft titled Siegfried’s Death. He then set the project aside and engaged in the most intense political activity of his life. In May 1849, Dresden revolutionaries rose up in protest of anti-constitutional actions by the Saxon king, and Wagner joined them, generating propaganda, helping to obtain arms, and sending signals from the tower of the Kreuzkirche. He was often at the side of the future anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who had long-standing ties to German radical circles. According to one witness, Wagner fell into a paroxysm of rage, shouting, “War and always war.” The day after the Dresden opera house was set ablaze, a street fighter supposedly called out, “Herr Kapellmeister, the beautiful divine spark of joy has ignited.” This was an allusion to the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth, which Wagner had conducted a few weeks earlier: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken.”

In the aftermath, both Bakunin and Wagner’s friend August Röckel were captured, convicted, and condemned to death, though the sentences were later commuted to prison terms. Wagner would probably have met the same fate if he had not eluded the authorities and made his way to Zurich, where he remained until 1858. For several years, he all but stopped composing and threw himself into the writing of essays, manifestos, and dramatic texts. In “Art and Revolution,” he assails commercial interests, saying, “Our god is money, our religion is making money.” Because of the false collectivity of capitalist society, artists must join the revolutionary opposition. In “The Artwork of the Future,” he upholds ancient Greek theater as a model for an amalgamation of the arts—the fabled Gesamtkunstwerk. And in the book-length treatise Opera and Drama he sets out the principles that underpin the Ring: a clear, uncluttered projection of the text; the use of recurring motifs to illustrate characters, concepts, and psychological states; the deployment of the orchestra as a medium of foreboding and remembrance.

Wagner’s antagonism toward the other, toward an elemental Alberich-like foe, comes to the fore in “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” or “Jewishness in Music,” published under a pseudonym in 1850. That essay contends that Jews have no culture of their own and that leading Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer are stale imitators of tradition and/or agents of capitalist greed. Chillingly, the analogy of a worm-ridden corpse recurs, purporting to evoke Jews’ presence in German society. Relatively few people read this odious document at the time: the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, where it appeared, had a circulation of about eight hundred. Almost two decades later, Wagner republished the essay under his own name, ensuring that it could never be forgotten or excused.

The violence of Wagner’s language in this period is still startling to behold. He writes to his supporter Theodor Uhlig: “Works of art cannot be created at present, they can only be prepared for by means of revolutionary activity, by destroying and crushing everything that is worth destroying and crushing.” He tells Liszt, his most steadfast musical ally, that he has an “enormous desire to commit acts of artistic terrorism.”

Having delivered a kind of polemical artillery barrage—a preview of the assaultive manifesto culture of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes—Wagner returned to his Nibelung material, greatly expanding its scope. First he drafted a prequel to Siegfried’s Death, titled The Young Siegfried. Then he went back further and wrote texts for what became Das Rheingold and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). The two Siegfried librettos were revised as Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. In the final scenario, Wotan and the gods, representative of a failed monarchical order, are consumed in flames. Wagner told Uhlig that he could conceive of a performance of the entire work “only after the revolution; only the revolution can offer me the artists and listeners I need.” A “great dramatic festival,” in a theater erected on the banks of the Rhine, would “make clear to the people of the revolution the meaning of that revolution, in its noblest sense. This audience will understand me: present-day audiences cannot.” The revolution he has in mind is a future one—the “great revolution of humanity.”

* * *

The Ring is grounded not only in politics but also in philosophy. The young Nietzsche called the cycle “an immense system of thought without the conceptual form of thought.” The Rheingold prelude is itself a kind of cosmological proposition. The upwelling of E-flat major is not a creation myth that depends upon a godlike spark, a shout of “Let there be light.” Instead, a world materializes in evolutionary fashion, as in the transmuting organisms studied by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck or the nebularly cohering galactic systems theorized by Immanuel Kant. Early in his career, Kant speculated that the solar system had germinated from a mass of gas and dust. Friedrich Engels saw social implications in that hypothesis: humanity, too, should be seen no longer as a system of fixed relations but as an organism undergoing continual evolution.

The revolutionaries of 1848 leaned heavily on the German philosophical tradition, which, since Kant’s writings of the 1780s, had transformed how thinking beings viewed themselves and the world. As old certainties trembled—monarchic government, religious morality, hierarchies of class—German idealism put forward a new intellectual faith. Kant had enshrined the principle of autonomous reason, of “always thinking for oneself,” as the essence of the Enlightenment. G. W. F. Hegel, Kant’s commanding successor, unveiled a grandiose theory of progress, in which a World Spirit guides history toward a utopian future. To those disconcerted by the condition of evolution and flux, Hegel extended the promise that a perfected world was near.

In the 1830s and ’40s, another wave of thinkers, the Young Hegelians, appropriated the master’s schema, determined to accelerate the World Spirit’s progress. They took aim at religious pieties (David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity) and at social inequality (the early economic thought of Marx and Engels). Wagner especially prized Feuerbach’s notion of the “philosophy of the future,” which, the composer later said, promised a “ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority.” This fixation on futurity—Wagner spoke variously of the artwork of the future, the drama of the future, the theater of the future, the artist of the future, the actor of the future, the religion of the future, the woman of the future, the humanity of the future, and the life of the future—became a favorite target of satirists, but it was a calculated rhetorical device that moved art out of the domain of upper-class entertainment and into the main sociopolitical arena.

Wagner also absorbed the Romantic precept that art should fill the void left by the retreat of traditional religion. Friedrich Schiller, in his 1795 treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man, declared that humanity achieves freedom through the perception of beauty, that communities find unity through shared aesthetic experience. Schiller saw the advent of an “aesthetic state,” a “joyous realm of play and of appearance.” Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Schelling all held that artistic mythologies could give new spiritual direction to what Max Weber would later call the disenchanted modern world. When Schlegel spoke of a reversion to the “primordial chaos of human nature, for which I know of no lovelier symbol than the motley throng of the ancient gods,” he might have been dreaming of the Ring, even if he had Greek gods in mind. The musicologist Richard Klein summarizes the Wagnerian synthesis: Romantic art-religion is bound to Hegel’s dialectic of progress, creating an aesthetic juggernaut.

Nationalism was a complicating factor. Hegel came to believe that the Spirit would find fulfillment in the modern state, and many shared his view. Johann Gottfried Herder, a member of the Weimar Classical circle that also included Schiller and Goethe, had codified modern nationalism with his thesis that humanity necessarily divides itself into distinct peoples, defined by language and folk traditions. One of philosophy’s great pluralists, Herder had no wish to aggrandize the German Volk at the expense of others. Wagner sounds like Herder when he says, in “Art and Revolution,” that the artist must transcend borders, exhibiting national features merely as a “charm of individual diversity.” More aggressive definitions of Germanness followed. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in his Addresses to the German Nation (1807–1808), upheld the superiority of German culture, saying that it could bring about a worldwide renewal. The later Wagner fell in with the militant chauvinism that flourished in Fichte’s wake, although the imperial state ultimately disappointed him. Dieter Borchmeyer, in his book What Is German?, describes how nineteenth-century Germany wavered between cosmopolitan and nationalist answers to the titular question. Wagner raised the issue himself and never gave a clear answer.

The metaphysical bravado of German philosophy masked a host of insecurities and fears. Why had the “land of poets and thinkers” failed to form a nation in the political sense? Was Germany’s backwardness a condition to be overcome, or did it preserve premodern values amid dizzying change? Many Romantics, Wagner included, recoiled from nineteenth-century modernity—industrialization, urbanization, mass politics, mass media, the collective onslaught of the age of steam and speed. In the Ring, the Rhine is a resource in danger of exploitation and despoliation. The composer’s urge to heal the break with nature culminates in Parsifal, where the hero says, “Only the spear that inflicted the wound can close it.” In a way, that formula captures Wagner’s own method. His critique of industrial society employs advanced stagecraft and tools of promotion—a culture of spectacle that looks ahead to Hollywood as much as it looks back to ancient Greece. What is modern in his work is intended to heal modernity’s wounds.

* * *

Awesome as it is, the Rheingold prelude is something other than an idyll of natural innocence. As Mark Berry argues in Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire, a study of the Ring’s political philosophy, the cycle carries no naïve message about the loss of paradise. Wotan’s world is compromised from the start. The motif of the Rheingold—a C-major trumpet fanfare amid shimmering strings—may seem to possess the same triadic purity as the immemorial rushing of the river, but it gives off an illusory, deceitful sheen. And while the Rhinemaidens make a primeval first impression with their watery sound poetry, in Alberich’s vicinity they become sneering sophisticates, mocking the ugly interloper. In The Perfect Wagnerite, Shaw compares them to denizens of high society who disdain a “poor, rough, vulgar, coarse fellow.” Modern productions often depict them as aloof party girls. Their humiliation of the dwarf is cruel, and breeds a resentment that many in the audience may find sympathetic.

In revenge, Alberich takes the gold and fashions the Ring. Significantly, he does not win the prize by force. Wagner has given the Rheingold a peculiar feature, which is not to be found in the medieval sources:

Only he who renounces love’s power,

only he who spurns love’s pleasure,

only he can attain the magic

to wrest the ring from the gold.

In short, power and love are incompatible. If you have one, you cannot have the other. Alberich is willing to make the trade: “Thus I curse love!”

When the gods enter, in the second scene of Rheingold, they present a handsomer picture of the same ugly contradiction. Wotan is locked in a loveless marriage, with Fricka. Inscribed on his spear are the treaties that keep warring factions at bay and preserve his own preeminence. As we later learn, he cut this spear from the World Ash Tree, which withered as a result. Here is more evidence that shadows fell on the Ring universe long before Alberich shuffled in. Wotan has undertaken a massive construction project, Valhalla, which he can ill afford. The giants Fasolt and Fafner have yet to be paid for their work in building it, and they want compensation in the form of Freia, keeper of the apples of eternal youth. When Wotan hears of the Ring, he realizes he can use it to pay off the giants. With Loge, the demigod of fire, Wotan descends to Nibelheim, Alberich’s world, intending to trick the dwarf into giving up the hoard.

During the transition to Nibelheim, Wagner unleashes a gigantic percussion section that includes eighteen anvils—a frightening, futuristic sonority, far removed from the idyll of the Rhine. Shaw seizes on the industrial modernity of the Nibelung domain: “This gloomy place need not be a mine; it might just as well be a match-factory, with yellow phosphorus, phossy jaw, a large dividend, and plenty of clergymen shareholders.” Alberich has multiplied the gold into vast wealth; like Marx’s potentates, he is captive to his capital and takes no pleasure in it. Yet—to adapt an American politician’s quip about the Panama Canal—he stole the gold fair and square, by renouncing love. Wotan makes no such sacrifice, at least consciously, and is therefore a thief of a higher order. As Wagner makes clear in his initial sketch of the Nibelung story, Alberich is “right in his complaints against the gods.” In the final scene of Rheingold, the dwarf delivers his terrible curse upon the Ring, which is also a curse upon Wotan:

Am I free now?

laughing angrily

Truly free?

Then receive my freedom’s

first greeting!

As it came to me through a curse,

so shall this ring be cursed in turn!…

Let all covet

its acquisition,

let none enjoy

its benefit!…

Forfeit to death,

let the coward be fettered by fear:

as long as he lives,

let him die away craving,

the lord of the ring

as the slave of the ring:

till I hold the spoils

in my hand again!

Wotan and Loge try to laugh away this diatribe—“Did you hear his love greeting?”—but the curse kicks in when Fafner kills his brother, Fasolt, in a dispute over possession of the Ring. Wotan begins to realize that his dealings rest on an “evil wage.”

The terms of the political analogy are clear. Wotan is a ruler in the modern mode, willing to allow limited freedoms but prepared to resort to violence. In his mania for treaties, he resembles Klemens von Metternich, the master of the old order. The lesser gods are the aristocracy; the giants are the restless proletariat; Alberich is a self-made capitalist. Loge is like a renegade philosopher-politician who has joined Wotan’s coalition for pragmatic reasons. Many commentators have likened Loge to Bakunin, who, according to Wagner, imagined a world conflagration arising from peasant rebellion. At the end of Rheingold, Loge is tempted to torch Valhalla earlier than scheduled: “They’re hurrying on towards their end, though they think they will last forever … I feel a seductive desire to turn myself into guttering flame.” The fall of the gods is the necessary prelude to a true uprising. “Alles, was besteht, muß untergehen,” Wagner wrote in his 1849 essay “Revolution”—“All that exists must go under.” The words parallel the prophecy of the earth goddess Erda, who warns Wotan, “All that is, ends.”

Rheingold closes with the degraded majesty of the gods’ entrance into Valhalla. Just as Wotan and his clan set foot on the rainbow bridge that leads to their new home, the Rhinemaidens are heard pleading for the return of the gold (“Only down deep is it trusty and true”). Wotan scowls to Loge: “Put an end to their teasing.” Fergus Hume, in his memorial sonnet of 1883, was right to call Wagner “Æschylean”: the scene resembles the ending of Agamemnon. As Clytemnestra and Aegisthus enter the palace of the murdered king, the chorus chants, “Have your way, gorge and grow fat, soil justice, while the power is yours,” to which Clytemnestra replies, “Do not heed their empty yappings.” Both processions are hollow triumphs. False and base is the revelry above. The challenge is to hear the irony in Wagner’s wall of sound: the thrill of the sonority, with its seventeen blaring brass, can trick us into taking the bombast at face value.


In the summer of 1854, Wagner arrived at Walküre, the first full-length opera of the Ring. Settled in Zurich, he composed at a manic pace. By September, he had churned his way through the first act, in which Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan’s twin offspring, fall in love without knowing each other’s identity. Despite the scandalousness of the situation, or perhaps because of it, nineteenth-century audiences found these scenes as rousing as any popular romance of the day. The climactic cascade of sensations—Siegmund’s ardent song of love and spring (“Winter’s storms have waned”); Sieglinde’s equally ardent answer (“You are the spring for which I longed”); Siegmund’s drawing of the sword from the tree (“Nothung! Nothung!”); the final orgasmic embrace—is a tour de force of hot-blooded Romantic entertainment.

Wagner in Zurich, from Thomas Mann’s picture collection

In the second act, the emotional temperature plummets. Wotan enters in a buoyant mood, convinced that he has found a way to regain the Ring. Having surrendered the gold to Fafner, Wotan cannot revoke the deal, on account of the contracts etched into his spear. Yet the wild human Siegmund would appear to be free of his father’s will and of godly commitments. Surely he can win the Ring from Fafner, who has taken the precaution of turning himself into a dragon. Fricka, Wotan’s disgruntled spouse, proceeds to pick the plan apart. Incestuous love is an outrage, she says, and Siegmund’s independence is a sham: the free man is transparently a pawn. Fricka demands that Wotan stand aside when Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, comes seeking satisfaction. Wotan descends into a twenty-minute monologue of anguish. The chief of the gods comes to understand his own powerlessness and, beyond that, the inevitability of his end.

Wagner wrote of this scene: “If it is presented as I require—and if all my intentions are fully understood—it is bound to produce a sense of shock beyond anything previously experienced.” First, downward-crawling bassoons, cellos, and a bass clarinet suggest Wotan’s dejection. When his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde asks what is wrong, he howls:

The alliterations of Stabreim here follow a subtler function, of a kind that Wagner discusses in Opera and Drama. When our ears detect consonant patterns—say, “heilig” (“holy/righteous”) and “Harm” (“sorrow”)—we recognize a bond between seemingly opposed emotions.

The music is titanic. The vocal line dives down jagged intervals—octave, major seventh, minor seventh. The orchestra piles on monolithic dissonances over a cavernous C. The bass note keeps moving down, one false bottom giving way to another, until we reach the basement of the world. Wotan now retells the story of the Ring with a clear view of his own guilt: “I longed in my heart for power … I acted unfairly … I did not return the ring to the Rhine … The curse that I fled will not flee from me now … Let all that I raised now fall in ruins!” Finally, he emits two cries of “Das Ende!”—the first stentorian, the second a whispered gasp. In a bitter epilogue, Wotan bequeaths to Alberich the “worthless splendor of the gods.”

Just before Wagner wrote this music, he made a discovery that reshaped his intellectual landscape. A fellow exile in Zurich was the revolutionary poet Georg Herwegh, who, in 1848, had led an expeditionary force into the Grand Duchy of Baden in support of attempts to found a republic there. Herwegh recommended that Wagner read Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. First published in 1818, this lyrical masterpiece of philosophical pessimism initially attracted little attention. In the years when Hegel’s vision of historical progress held sway, Schopenhauer offered a far darker picture of a pain-filled world spinning toward no definite goal. By the early fifties, the pessimist had come into fashion, his world-weariness matching the depleted mood of the postrevolutionary era. At first, Schopenhauer’s imperative of self-abnegation alarmed Wagner, but Herwegh made him realize that all tragedy rests on an awareness of the “nothingness of the world of appearances.”

The World as Will appealed to Wagner not least because it elevated music to a place of preeminence among the arts. In Schopenhauer’s thought, the Will is not simply the striving of the individual but a drive inherent in the universe—an endless need that never finds satisfaction. Music, Schopenhauer says, is the one art form that, rather than copying the outer shell of representation, mimics the operation of the Will itself. The composer reveals the “innermost nature of the world,” and his work “gives the innermost kernel preceding all form, or the heart of things.” The great boon of aesthetic experience, Schopenhauer elsewhere says, is that in replicating the activity of the Will it grants the spectator relief from the Will’s insatiable pressure, by letting him imagine that he has stepped outside of it. “We celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.”

Nietzsche later smirked that Wagner’s embrace of Schopenhauer was no surprise, given the superpowers that this philosophy bestows on the musician: “Henceforth he became an oracle, a priest, indeed more than a priest, a sort of mouthpiece of the ‘in itself’ of things, a telephone of the beyond.” But the appeal was not simply narcissistic. Wagner saw striking resemblances between Schopenhauer’s work and the Ring in progress. One passage in The World as Will reads like a précis of the opening of Rheingold: “I recognize in the deepest tones of harmony, in the ground-bass, the lowest grades of the will’s objectification, inorganic nature, the mass of the planet.” The ethic of self-abnegation matches Wotan’s acceptance of his powerlessness. Schopenhauer says that only a denial of worldly appearances, a denial of the will to live, can bring peace to the suffering individual. He who overcomes the self will “change his whole nature, rise above himself and above all suffering … and gladly welcome death.” The Wotan of Walküre begins to attain such wisdom, although his behavior lags behind his understanding: “What I love, I must relinquish.”

These ideas had sources older than Schopenhauer. To expose the unreality of the outer world, the philosopher drew not only on the Western intellectual tradition—Plato’s shadows in the cave, Kant’s world of phenomena—but also on Christian asceticism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The Hindu concept of maya, the veil of illusion, was paramount. Feuerbach, in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality, had taught that the lust for life is also the lust for death, that “only nothingness can cure being.” True heaven is the “better I of another humanity” that comes into being when the ego withers. The Romantics had long sung in praise of death, dissolution, self-annihilation. Wagner seemed especially open to such thinking after 1848, when his alienation from both political and artistic life became profound. The world is “evil, evil, fundamentally evil,” he wrote to Liszt. “It belongs to Alberich.” Bryan Magee, in his philosophical study The Tristan Chord, proposes that Wagner’s apparent conservative turn resulted from this deeper philosophical transformation: “His significant movement was not from left to right but from politics to metaphysics.” Music itself becomes the metaphysical agent, the way to a “trusty and true” world beyond the veil.

In December 1854, Wagner sent Schopenhauer the text of the Ring, no doubt hoping that the philosopher would recognize it as the work of a kindred spirit. Schopenhauer, who preferred Mozart and Rossini to more modern music, made biting notes in the margins. “Wodan under the slipper!” he wrote next to Fricka’s critique of her husband in Act II of Walküre. The goings-on between the twins caused him obvious distress. Next to the stage instruction that ends the love scene in Act I—“The curtain falls quickly”—Schopenhauer added, “And it’s high time.”


Siegfried’s theme, from Wolzogen’s guide to Ring leitmotifs

At first, Siegfried, the blond hero born of Siegmund and Sieglinde, loomed almost erotically large in Wagner’s imagination. In 1851, he spoke of “the beautiful young man in the shapeliest freshness of his power … the real, naked man, in whom I was able to discern every throbbing of his pulse, every twitch of his powerful muscles.” The strapping youth also has the appearance of a revolutionary, free of sentimental attachments to the extant world. Nietzsche wrote: “His origin already amounts to a declaration of war on morality—he comes into the world through adultery, through incest … He overthrew all tradition, all respect, all fear. He strikes down whatever he does not like.” Shaw called Siegfried “a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist … an anticipation of the ‘overman’ of Nietzsche.”

Siegfried receded in importance as the Ring grew in scope and Wotan moved into the foreground. The god “resembles us to a tee,” Wagner wrote in 1854. Siegfried is more abstract—“the man of the future whom we desire and long for but who cannot be made by us since he must create himself on the basis of our own annihilation.” At times, the composer sounded almost disillusioned with Siegfried, even though his only son bore the hero’s name. “The best part of him is the stupid boy,” Wagner said in 1870. “The man is awful.” Indeed, Siegfried is the most problematic character in the cycle. By design, he lacks complexity: he can seem like an action-movie figure barging into a psychological novel. Stupidity is his tragic flaw. Nonetheless, the entire drama hinges on him.

In 1856, Wagner set about composing Siegfried—the “stupid boy” part of the cycle. It is the archetypal tale of a budding superhero discovering powers he does not yet understand. Siegfried is in the care of Mime, Alberich’s brother, who intends to use the boy to slay the dragon and take the Ring. Siegfried reforges Nothung, Siegmund’s shattered sword, and does the deed. When he tastes the dragon’s blood, he can suddenly understand the discourse of a magical Woodbird, who tells him of Mime’s treacherous nature. Siegfried kills the dwarf and moves on to his next mission: winning a Valkyrie maiden who sleeps within a ring of fire. In the final act, he finds his way blocked by Wotan, who is now disguised as the shadowy Wanderer, his one-eyed face concealed beneath a broad-brimmed hat. The hero breaks the Wanderer’s staff, prances through the magic fire, and meets his destined mate, Brünnhilde.

In the summer of 1857, with two acts of Siegfried drafted, Wagner set the Ring aside in favor of a new project: the romantic tragedy Tristan und Isolde. He was in the throes of an infatuation with the author Mathilde Wesendonck, who was married to his Zurich patron Otto Wesendonck. The love triangle of Tristan mirrored his personal situation. Relations with the Wesendoncks and with his first wife, the actor Minna Planer, reached a point of crisis, and in 1858 he decamped to Venice, rented rooms in a canal-side palace, and buried himself in Tristan. His intention was to produce a more manageable score, one that could earn him the money he needed to finish the Ring. The opera that emerged was so radical in its musical language that it was at first deemed unperformable. After Tristan came Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a comedy of colossal dimensions. In 1864, work resumed on the first two acts of Siegfried, but not until 1869 did Wagner take up Act III. In the interim, his style had been transformed. At any performance, you feel a jolt when the curtain rises on Act III and the enriched technique of Tristan and Meistersinger comes flooding in, with nine distinct Ring leitmotifs superimposed.

The word “leitmotif” has sown much confusion over the years. Hans von Wolzogen, one of Wagner’s most militant young followers, popularized the term, against the composer’s own wishes. Although Wagner referred to “melodic moments” and “basic motifs” in his work, he criticized Wolzogen for treating such motifs purely as dramatic devices, overlooking their musical logic. In the simplest definition, leitmotifs are identifying sonic tags: when someone talks about the sword, you hear the sword’s theme. Leitmotifs certainly function this way in the Ring, but they are less finished melodies than charged fragments, which transcend their context and gesture forward or backward in time. They not only illustrate the action but indicate what characters are thinking or sensing—or even what they are unable to perceive.

As the Ring proceeds, Wagner handles his leitmotifs in increasingly cavalier, even subversive ways. The motif commonly called “Renunciation of Love” first sounds in Rheingold, as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde explains how the gold can be won. It is heard again in Walküre, when Siegmund is preparing to pull the sword Nothung from the tree. There its purpose is more obscure, and has stirred much speculation. It implies some concealed identity between the lusty hero and the loveless dwarf—and the identity of opposites is a favorite Wagner theme. Even more tellingly, the motif sounds in Götterdämmerung when Brünnhilde tells her sister Waltraute that she will not give up the Ring, because it symbolizes her bond with Siegfried. The Ring’s power has advanced to the stage that love and lovelessness serve its purposes equally.

A psychological study has concluded that neither general musical training nor command of German is necessary for subjects to be able to recognize and recall the leitmotifs. They are superbly designed to lodge in the memory of a broad public, orienting listeners in large-scale compositional structures. Eric Prieto, in his book Listening In, writes that the leitmotif is “not a musical technique at all” but instead a device “borrowed from drama, and dependent on that eminently linguistic procedure, the attribution of a referent to a sound symbol.” Because of its literary nature, the leitmotif has affected literature in turn. Wagnerian authors create networks of phrases that recur across a wide span. Visual artists and filmmakers, likewise, introduce motifs of pattern and color. Although the analogy can become vague to the point of vanishing, artists in many disciplines have respected Wagner’s way of giving continuity to extended forms.

What no artist can imitate with complete success—though Thomas Mann and Proust come close—is the uncanny way leitmotifs operate in later stages of the Ring, bridging expanses of time. The music of previous days resurfaces, as if from another life. From Act III of Siegfried forward, the old motifs are, indeed, the voice of Wagner’s younger self intruding on his mature style. When Siegfried breaks the Wanderer’s staff, the mighty descending figure of Wotan’s spear undergoes a harmonic fracture, breaking into whole-tone intervals. The Spear motif will recur in Götterdämmerung; there it falls into the hands of Alberich’s demonic son Hagen, who dispatches Siegfried with a stab in the back. Having helped to establish identity and personality, leitmotifs also suggest the loss of identity, death itself.

* * *

By the time he returned to Siegfried, Wagner had settled in a lakeside house in Tribschen, outside Lucerne. Living with him was Cosima von Bülow, his lover since 1863. The couple remained unmarried until 1870, when Hans von Bülow, Cosima’s first husband, agreed to a divorce. (Minna Wagner had died in 1866.) In the meantime, Cosima had given birth to two illegitimate children, Isolde and Eva. Although she performed the role of helpmate, Cosima was a woman of high intelligence and broad culture, anything but meek in her opinions. That the Bayreuth Festival survived Wagner’s death and became a permanent institution owed everything to Cosima’s skill as a theatrical director, her flair for administration, and her half-ethereal, half-steely charisma. Few women of the period achieved comparable authority. She was also politically reactionary, and, if anything, even more antisemitic than her husband. In 1869, she began keeping a diary, in which she recorded Wagner’s daily utterances and depicted him as a German sage. That formidable document—twenty-one volumes, nearly a million words—is both a rich fund of biographical data and a masterly exercise in image control.

Wagner in Lucerne

“At lunch a philologist, Professor Nietzsche,” Cosima wrote on May 17, 1869. Nietzsche had first met Wagner the previous November, in Leipzig, and succumbed at once to the composer’s personality. “Wagner played all the important parts of Meistersinger, imitating all the voices in very boisterous fashion,” Nietzsche reported. “He is indeed a fabulously lively and fiery man, who speaks very rapidly, is very funny, and makes an intimate party of this sort a total joy.” In private, the glowering Meister of official portraits was antic, ebullient, even clownish. He liked nothing more than to cavort with his dogs, who ruled the household.

In the spring of 1869, the twenty-four-year-old Nietzsche had been appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, which was several hours from Lucerne by train. He came to Tribschen in the hope of renewing his acquaintance with the Meister. It was the eve of Pentecost, Nietzsche recalled—the day the Holy Spirit visits the Apostles. He lingered outside the villa, listening as Wagner tried out chords at the piano. Later, he determined that he had heard the passage of Siegfried in which Brünnhilde sings, “He who woke me has wounded me!” It is a telling moment. Brünnhilde has been confined to the ring of fire for disobeying Wotan’s commands. When Siegfried enters her domain, she initially resists his advances and laments the loss of her Valkyrie powers. She is no helpless maiden awaiting rescue; her pride and intellect remain. When she yields, she does so in the knowledge that this relationship is not a personal matter but a means of world transformation. “Twilight of the gods, darken above,” she sings—the one time that the word “Götterdämmerung” is uttered in the Ring.

When Nietzsche mustered the courage to announce himself, Wagner sent word that he did not wish to be disturbed. The young man was, however, invited for lunch the following Monday. “A quiet and pleasant visit,” Cosima wrote. In early June, Nietzsche returned and spent the night—not any night, but the night that Cosima gave birth to Siegfried Wagner. During Wagner’s remaining years in Tribschen—he moved to Bayreuth in 1872—Nietzsche visited so often that he was given his own room in the house. The friendship deepened into something like a father-son connection. “Strictly speaking, you are, aside from my wife, the one prize I have received in life,” Wagner wrote to his disciple in 1872. Later, in a draft of the preface to the second part of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche described the relationship as “my only love-affair,” before striking the phrase from his proofs.

Nietzsche grew up in a Lutheran household that cherished the German musical tradition. His father, the pastor of Röcken, a village not far from Leipzig, played the piano and organ in a style that his son characterized as “free variation.” Nietzsche took up piano at an early age, studying repertory from Bach to Schumann. He also composed, in an indistinct Classical-Romantic idiom, and later made the mistake of showing his efforts to the Wagners and their circle. In 1872, Hans von Bülow passed lacerating judgment on Nietzsche’s talent: “From the musical standpoint, your ‘Meditation’ is tantamount to a crime in the moral world. I could discover no trace of Apollonian elements, and as for the Dionysian, I was frankly reminded more of the morning after a bacchanal than of a bacchanal per se.”

At first, Nietzsche regarded the “music of the future” with suspicion. When, in 1866, he studied the score of Walküre, he found “great deformities and defects” alongside “great beauties.” By 1868, though, his interest had intensified into an obsession, as he praised Wagner for possessing qualities that he also attributed to Schopenhauer: “the ethical air, the Faustian scent, cross, death, and grave, etc.” The material of the Ring, and especially the figure of Siegfried, transfixed him. On hearing the preludes to Tristan and Meistersinger, he wrote, “Every fiber, every nerve in me is quivering.” Later, he would compare the experience to taking hashish. Many Wagnerites felt the music to be intoxicating or narcotic in effect. Baudelaire likened it to opium, others to alcohol, morphine, and absinthe.

Nietzsche promptly took on a role that others filled before and after him: that of companion, propagandist, factotum. He stayed at Tribschen during the holidays and carried out duties elsewhere. On one occasion, he was sent to procure caramels and other desserts in Strasbourg; on another, he fetched silk underwear in Basel. There was an element of calculation on both sides. Nietzsche seized the chance to align himself with a star of European culture. Wagner, who lacked strong support in the academic world, knew the value of having a gifted and impassioned young scholar as an ally.

Fulfilling Wagner’s request for a “longer and more comprehensive work,” Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, in 1872. Its central idea, the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, is one that he had been pondering for a while, but he surely discussed it with the composer, who had his own notions about the Greek gods. In “Art and Revolution,” Wagner associates Apollo with the perfection of the male form, the ordered harmony of Greek architecture, and the swinging rhythm of music. In passing, Wagner comments that Dionysus inspires the tragic poet as he brings forth drama under Apollo’s gaze. A synergy of the two is implied. Hanging in Tribschen was a watercolor of Bonaventura Genelli’s neoclassical painting Bacchus Among the Muses; Nietzsche thought of the picture as he worked on his book. In 1871, Wagner told Nietzsche that the painting, The Birth of Tragedy, and his own work came together in a “remarkable, even miraculous connection.”

Nietzsche also echoes his mentor when he proposes that Greek tragedy gestated in the musical utterance of the chorus. In Opera and Drama, Wagner compares the modern orchestra to the Greek chorus, using the metaphor of the Mutterschooß, the mother’s womb, to describe the function of orchestra and chorus alike. In his 1870 essay on Beethoven, he writes that “out of choral song the drama projected itself onto the stage”—that “out of the spirit of music” the entire Greek order arose. The last phrase passed into the title of The Birth of Tragedy, and the womb image is replicated in the text: “The choral passages that are woven into the tragedy are, in a certain sense, the womb of all of the so-called dialogue, i.e., of the total stage world, the actual drama.”

At almost every turn, however, Nietzsche pushes Wagnerian thought to new rhetorical extremes. His emphasis on Dionysian revelry outpaces the composer’s warier engagement with orgiastic states. His claims on behalf of art are fanatical: “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” Master and follower diverge most conspicuously on the question of slavery. For Wagner, slavery was a flagrant flaw of Hellenic culture; a Greek revival would require a different social structure, one that would make beauty available to all. Nietzsche repeats certain of these sentiments but never strongly affirms them. In the grip of the Dionysian rite, the slave can achieve freedom, anyone can feel like a god; yet his permanent liberation seems neither possible nor desirable. In an essay on the Greek state, which was dropped from The Birth of Tragedy in its final form, Nietzsche declares that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture,” its logic binding the masses to the service of a superior, art-creating minority. The intellectual historian Martin Ruehl speculates that Wagner persuaded Nietzsche to omit this material when they discussed the manuscript.

In the last part of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that German music will incarnate “the gradual awakening of the Dionysian spirit.” Amid the degeneracy of contemporary life, one can take comfort in the fact that

the German spirit rests and dreams in an inaccessible abyss, like a knight sunk in slumber, its splendid health, profundity, and Dionysian strength intact; and from that abyss the Dionysian song is wafting up our way, to let us know that this German knight still dreams even now his age-old Dionysian myth in blissfully serious visions. Let no one believe that the German spirit has forever lost its mythical homeland, if it can still understand so clearly the bird voices which tell that homeland’s tale. One day it will find itself awake, in the morning freshness of a tremendous sleep; then it will slay dragons, destroy the spiteful dwarfs, and awaken Brünnhilde—and Wotan’s spear itself shall be unable to block its way!

It is a polemical account of the Ring. Not only Brünnhilde but also Siegfried are cast as sleepers waiting to be awoken. The hero becomes like Friedrich Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was said to lie beneath the Kyffhäuser hills in Thuringia, waiting to rise again. As Benedict Anderson shows in his classic study Imagined Communities, the metaphor of awakening is a commonplace in nationalist discourse, recasting a newly invented entity as a resurrected one. German readers would have related such imagery to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the crowning of Wilhelm I as Kaiser of a unified Reich. In fact, Nietzsche, who witnessed the war’s carnage as a medical orderly, felt that militarism was eroding the German soul, and argued the point with Wagner, who was in a jingoistic phase. Nietzsche aired those reservations in his 1873 essay on David Strauss, but not in The Birth of Tragedy.

Wagner pronounced himself pleased. “This is the book I have been longing for,” he told Cosima. But it may have impressed him more as a feat of publicity than as a faithful picture of his ideas. Nietzsche thought that Wagner “did not recognize himself in the text.” What is missing is an awareness of Siegfried’s flaws—his gullibility, his rashness, his obliviousness—and a sense of Brünnhilde’s redeeming wisdom. Nietzsche effectively jettisons the Ring’s critique of power. He would later say that Wagner went astray when he lost touch with Siegfried’s vitality and gave in to Wotan’s pessimism: “Everything goes wrong, everything is a disaster, the new world is just as bad as the old one:—Nothingness, the Indian Circe beckons.” The disjunction between Nietzsche and Wagner is visible from the start.


“The chief feature of the Wagner district is a great lunatic asylum,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1889. “It is a desperately stupid little town.” To call it stupid is unjust, but Bayreuth is certainly a quiet place—a typical provincial German city, with a quaint old center and a fine Baroque opera house. There are no fast trains from metropolitan centers; most travelers must change to a local in Nuremberg, about fifty miles to the southwest. For Wagner, the relative dullness of Bayreuth was a boon. He wanted to locate his festival in a city large enough to accommodate an influx of visitors but not so large as to possess a well-heeled, prejudiced art public of its own. The site had to exist outside of extant cultural networks; it had to be a blank slate.

Wagner had long wished for a new kind of festival experience, through which his audience could escape urban distractions and enter a more receptive frame of mind. There were precedents for such a ritual, such as the Passion Play at Oberammergau, which has been reenacting Jesus Christ’s trial and death at ten-year intervals since 1634. The ultimate model was the Great Dionysia, the civic festival of ancient Athens, which revolved around dramatic performances in the form of tetralogies—three tragedies followed by a satyr play. Wagner set forth his plan in an 1850 letter to Uhlig:

I would erect, in a beautiful meadow near the town, a crude theater of boards and beams, built to my specifications and equipped only with such decor and machinery as is necessary for the performance of Siegfried … At the new year, announcements and invitations to all friends of the musical drama would go out to all the German newspapers, with the offer of a visit to the proposed dramatic musical festival: anyone who responds and travels for this purpose to Zurich would be assured an entrée—naturally, like all the entrées, gratis! In addition, I would invite the young people here, university, choral societies, etc. When everything was in order, I would arrange, under these conditions, three performances of Siegfried in one week. After the third, the theater would be torn down and my score burnt. To those who had enjoyed the thing I would then say: “Now go do the same!”

It would cost ten thousand thalers, Wagner added. Although he soon set aside the immolation of the score, he stuck to this initial scheme for a long time. He often spoke of his theater as a temporary structure, made of light materials. Even at a late stage, he hoped to offer free tickets, so that the experience would be open to all. To be sure, the expense of traveling to Bayreuth would still have been more than most people could bear.

By the later sixties, Wagner was a figure of international renown, his insurgent aura fast dissipating. In 1864, Ludwig II, the teenaged monarch of Bavaria, had come to the composer’s rescue. The king adored Wagner’s music but had his own ideas about architecture, and was not inclined to underwrite a temporary theater in a meadow. When the Romantic-Classical master Gottfried Semper drew up plans for a massive theater in Munich, Wagner called it “nonsensical,” although he approved of Semper’s design for the auditorium itself. The projected cost of the building provoked criticism, adding to the cloud of controversy that surrounded Wagner in Bavaria. Court intrigues and press campaigns forced a retreat to Switzerland. Still, Ludwig sought to make Munich the Wagner capital. Between 1865 and 1870, Tristan, Meistersinger, Rheingold, and Walküre all had their premieres there. Wagner disliked the manner of presentation, and expressed relief when the Munich project came to naught.

Finally, in 1870, Wagner’s eye landed on Bayreuth. The Festspielhaus that rose there, on a hill above the town, was a compromise between the austere 1850 plan and Ludwig’s penchant for luxury. It was a real theater, not a provisional one, yet it was an unostentatious building in an out-of-the-way place. Reviewing the blueprints, Wagner asked for more simplicity, more functionality. “Away with the ornaments!” he wrote on one design. The structure, he said, should be “no more solid than is necessary to prevent it from collapsing.” Seen from the train station, the Festspielhaus looks like a graceful industrial facility rather than a temple of culture. A “rambling, no-style building,” one critic said. The novelist Colette compared it to a gasometer. But it has aged well—a stately pile of brick and wood, framed by stands of trees. Veteran Bayreuthians call the festival complex the Green Hill, as if it were an outgrowth of the park that surrounds it.

The interior was even more jarring to nineteenth-century sensibilities. Traditional opera houses conform to a horseshoe shape, with many of the boxes facing one another—an arrangement conducive to social display. Bayreuth has a fan-shaped array of steeply raked rows, like a section lifted from a Greek amphitheater, so that every seat is angled toward the stage. Two proscenia are nested inside each other, drawing all eyes forward. The pit is set unusually deep, removing the musicians and the conductor from the field of vision. In an acoustical miracle that has never been fully explained, the orchestral sound diffuses richly through the auditorium, even though it must pass through an aperture in front of the stage. Modestly adorned columns line the sides of the auditorium. Hard-backed seats keep the listener awake and alert. In an 1873 essay, Wagner headily summarized the intended effect on the spectator:

Once he has taken his seat, he finds himself in a veritable “Theatron”—that is, a space designed for nothing other than looking, and looking where his position points him. Nothing distinctly perceptible comes between him and the image to be looked at—instead only a sense of hovering distance, which results from the architectural arrangement of the two proscenia; in this way, the abstracted image assumes the unapproachability of a dream vision, while the music, sounding spectrally from the “mystic abyss,” like vapors arising from the sacred Ur-womb of Gaia beneath the seat of Pythia, carries him into that inspired state of clairvoyance in which the scenic picture becomes for him the truest reflection of life itself.

This essay bears the imprint of Schopenhauer’s analysis of occult phenomena—clairvoyance, prophetic dreams, encounters with ghosts. The philosopher says that the dreaming or mesmerized mind can find a shortcut to the sphere of the will, where artificial constructs of space and time melt away and glimpses of the future intrude upon the present. Wagner is likewise suggesting that his theater will send its audience into a state of Hellsehen, or clairvoyance. The Pythia was the oracle at Delphi; Bayreuth has a similar function.

In all, Bayreuth was intended to foster a new level of seriousness in the theater public. Spectators should feel themselves disappearing into the work at hand. To assist in that illusion, Wagner planned to have the lights in the auditorium dimmed—again defying an operagoing culture that saw its own finery as part of the spectacle. At the first Ring, adjustable gas lamps failed to operate as planned, resulting in near-total darkness. Although the system was fixed, the idea of Wagnerian gloom took hold. The darkening of theaters actually dates back centuries, but Bayreuth popularized the practice in opera.

Wagner was also keen to discourage the bursts of applause that interrupted standard opera presentations. He did not, however, mandate worshipful silence, as is often claimed. In 1882, at the premiere of Parsifal, he requested that there be no curtain calls after Act II, so as not to “impinge on the impression,” as Cosima wrote. The crowd took this to mean that there should be no applause at all, and total silence greeted the final curtain. Wagner plaintively asked, “Did the audience like it or not?” At a later performance, someone shouted, “Bravo!” during the chorus of the Flower Maidens, and was hissed. That someone turned out to be the composer. Here was an early sign that Wagnerism was taking on a life independent of its creator.

The view from the “mystic abyss”

* * *

Nietzsche hoped that Bayreuth would be the fulfillment of his Greco-German dreams—a modern festival along Hellenic lines, fusing Apollonian and Dionysian elements, presented before an audience of elite aesthetes. Wagner, for his part, clung to his fantasy of a great popular festival, open to people of all backgrounds. Supporters were building up an international network of Wagner Societies, whose members made advance contributions in exchange for tickets. Through their patronage, Wagner hoped to keep admission free. By 1873, fund-raising was lagging, especially among German notables. Two of the biggest donors were, reputedly, Abdülaziz, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and Isma’il Pasha, the khedive of Egypt.

To Nietzsche fell the task of writing an “Exhortation to the Germans,” urging native support. As promotional literature, it left much to be desired, its arguments bending toward the tortured and the delusional: “The German will appear honorable and beneficial to other nations only when he has shown that he is terrifying, and yet through the exertion of his highest and noblest artistic and cultural powers he will make one want to forget that he was terrifying.” Delegates from the Wagner Societies rejected Nietzsche’s work on account of its “bold language,” according to Cosima, though she considered it “very fine.”

Nietzsche’s culminating publicity effort, “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” was published in July 1876, just before the festival opened. The tone is portentous, at times preposterous: “When on that day in May 1872, in pouring rain and under dark skies, the cornerstone was laid on that hill in Bayreuth, Wagner rode back to the city with some of us; he was silent and for a long time turned his gaze inward with a look that would be impossible to describe in words.” We are told that Wagner breathes in the “sublime and the ultra-sublime,” that he provides “the supreme model for all art in the grand manner,” that Tristan is “the true opus metaphysicum of all art.” Bayreuth was to be a gathering of chosen apostles, as on that rainy day in 1872, which, Nietzsche solemnly recorded in his notebooks, also fell in the period of Pentecost. At the same time, somehow, the festival would welcome the masses, since Wagner’s art “no longer even recognizes the distinction between cultivated or uncultivated.”

Even as he was manufacturing hype, Nietzsche was inwardly pulling away. The Wagners’ move to Bayreuth led to emotional as well as physical distance. The bustle of the nascent festival made for a dispiriting contrast to the otherworldly idyll on Lake Lucerne. Initial notes for the Bayreuth essay, from 1874, show smoldering skepticism:

If Goethe is a displaced painter and Schiller a displaced orator, then Wagner is a displaced actor.

* * *

W.’s youth is that of a many-sided dilettante who seems destined to come to nothing. In an absurd way, I often have doubted whether W. has musical talent.

* * *

W. has a domineering character, only then is he in his element … the inhibition of this drive makes him immoderate, eccentric, obstreperous.

* * *

W. gets rid of all his weaknesses by imputing them to his age and his adversaries.

Nietzsche remains admiring of the musical achievement, its “unity in diversity,” but he is hostile to the public, theatrical nature of Wagner’s enterprise.

The 1876 festival drew many glittering names. Kaiser Wilhelm I greeted Wagner by saying, “I never thought you’d pull it off.” Dom Pedro II of Brazil, who once expressed interest in becoming Wagner’s patron, made the long journey from Rio de Janeiro. Various dukes, princes, and counts attended—more than two hundred members of the German and Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Such leading composers as Liszt, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns were present, though Brahms and Verdi stayed away. The crowd included some eminent painters and writers: Hans Makart, Franz von Lenbach, Henri Fantin-Latour, Catulle Mendès.

For the most part, though, well-to-do curiosity-seekers set the tone. Joseph Bennett, one of a hundred or more journalists present, spotted American women “in a chronic state of ecstasy about ‘darling Liszt’” and Frenchmen “meditating epigrams of a withering character.” Tchaikovsky noted that the visitors looked preoccupied, “as if in search of something.” That something turned out to be food, which was in short supply: “Cutlets, baked potatoes, omelettes—all are discussed much more eagerly than Wagner’s music.” Shops were full of tacky merchandise, with Wagner’s face emblazoned on beer mugs, pipe bowls, cigar boxes, and sundry toiletries.

In the end, a festival that professed to shun consumerism all but wallowed in commercial values. As Nicholas Vazsonyi demonstrates in Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand, the composer helped to pioneer modern techniques of mass dissemination and publicity. Wolzogen’s leitmotif guide appeared ahead of the festival. Press releases provided behind-the-scenes anecdotes. The fund-raising system resembled a stock company, a network of investors; the Wagner Societies operated like fan clubs. The buzz of scandal that followed Wagner kept his name in the news—a crucial component of the machinery of celebrity. Somehow, the Ring itself, that radical monument, rose above the noise. Vazsonyi writes: “Wagner’s special skill was the ability to preserve the artistic integrity of his towering works amidst the blaze of commodification to which he in the first place had subjected them.”

Wagner knickknacks at the Reuter Wagner Museum in Eisenach

* * *

Nietzsche was appalled. “I no longer recognized anything, I scarcely recognized Wagner,” he wrote in Ecce Homo, remembering the “profound alienation” he felt when he arrived for the final rehearsals of the Ring. “What had happened?—Wagner had been translated into German! The Wagnerian had become the master of Wagner!—German art! The German master! German beer!… Enough; in the middle of it all I left for a couple of weeks.”

The biographical reality is somewhat different. Nietzsche indeed fled to the mountain forest resort of Klingenbrunn, but he was there for only about a week. He went mainly because of his chronic ill health, which included eye problems, piercing headaches, and attacks of vomiting. Sitting for extended periods in a theater was all but unbearable for him. Most likely, he was suffering from a hereditary neurological or vascular disorder; his father, who died at the age of thirty-six, showed similar symptoms. Nonetheless, Nietzsche could not stay away from what he called the “liquid gold” of Wagner’s orchestra, and he returned to Bayreuth in time for the first public performances, August 13–17.

If Nietzsche exaggerated his flight from Bayreuth, there is no doubt that he felt estranged from the festivities. Throughout his life, he believed that a philosopher must wage war on existing forms and conventions—“overcome his time in himself.” Bayreuth made it plain that the former pariah Wagner was now an adornment of the age. A crowd of “bored, unmusical” patrons and “idle European riff-raff” traipsed about, using the place for sport. On a personal level, Nietzsche’s intimacy with the composer was slipping away. The French author Édouard Schuré recalled that Wagner displayed “fantastic gaiety” and “exuberant humor” in gatherings at Haus Wahnfried, putting on his customary one-man performances. Nietzsche, in contrast, seemed deflated—“timid, embarrassed, almost always silent,” Schuré wrote.

Once the festival was over, Wagner, too, lapsed into a state of dejection. Despite all of his ingenious promotional tactics, he had lost a great deal of money, and in many ways the productions failed to satisfy him. Cosima wrote: “R. is very sad, says he wishes he could die!” The next time, he told her, everything would be done differently. In blacker moods, he thought to himself, “Never again, never again!” There was even talk of “giving up the festival entirely and disappearing.” Did Wagner sense that he had fallen far short of his old dream of a free festival in a meadow? In any event, he fled south, as if to recapture the Mediterranean glow in which he had first glimpsed his treacherous gold.


The last meeting between Nietzsche and Wagner took place in the fall of 1876, in Sorrento, on the Amalfi Coast. The Wagners were ensconced at the Grand Hotel Vittoria, which looks out at the sea. Nietzsche was staying in humbler quarters a few minutes away, in the company of his former pupil Albert Brenner and the writers Malwida von Meysenbug and Paul Rée. Relations with Richard and Cosima remained outwardly cordial, but the mood was strained. For one thing, the Wagners were suspicious of Rée, because of his Jewish heritage. They also took an intrusive interest in their friend’s medical issues. To Otto Eiser, Nietzsche’s doctor, Wagner later offered the observation that he had seen other “young men of great intellectual ability” cut down by similar problems, and that these were often the result of masturbation. Eiser replied with polite skepticism, saying that his patient displayed no such abnormalities. At some subsequent date, word of Wagner’s amateur diagnosis got back to Nietzsche, who was left with the impression that his idol suspected him of “unnatural excesses, with hints of pederasty.”

The immediate cause of the break, however, was a brazen display of independence on Nietzsche’s part. During his stay in Klingenbrunn, in the summer of 1876, he had begun making notes for the book that became Human, All Too Human. The style departs markedly from his earlier published writing. In place of spacious paragraphs and ornate sentences, it proceeds by way of aphorisms and polemics, pithy strikes and sudden swerves.

Sleep of virtue.—When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed.

* * *

Luke 18:14 improved.—He who humbles himself wants to be exalted.

* * *

Against originals.—When art clothes itself in the most worn-out materials, we most readily recognize it as art.

This change of voice, inspired in part by Rée’s brisk positivist philosophy, goes hand in hand with an attack on metaphysics. Wagner, after the Ring, turned toward the mystical ritual of Parsifal—a staging of the Schopenhauerian ethic of self-abnegation, with elements culled from the great world religions. Nietzsche veered in more or less the opposite direction.

Human, All Too Human begins with a sweeping refutation of the Romantic sublime. All attempts to grasp some fundamental truth behind the veneer of existence—the Ding an sich, the “thing in itself”—result from a false duality; reality consists of a tangled but ultimately graspable web of historically fluctuating relationships. Later sections pick at the moral pieties that underpin so much of Wagner’s work. Parsifal, following Schopenhauer’s philosophy of compassion, sets forth an ethic of “knowing through compassion”—“durch Mitleid wissend.” Nietzsche, who had read Wagner’s prose draft for the opera as early as 1869, hammers away at that word Mitleid, considering it a badge of weakness. Instead he praises animal urges, the flexing of strength, the exercise of force, even to the point of cruelty. “Culture simply cannot do without passions, vices, and acts of malice.” He goes so far as to say that “temporary relapses into barbarism” can rejuvenate an aging civilization. Wagner and Schopenhauer exude sickness and decadence; Nietzsche stands for power and health.

Wagner goes unnamed in Human, All Too Human, but a number of passages take clear shots at him. “Any degree of levity or melancholy is better than a romantic turn to the past and desertion, an accommodation with any form of Christianity whatsoever”: this is a preemptive critique of Parsifal. “It is in any case a dangerous sign when an awe of oneself comes over any human being”: this is a slap at the Wagner cult. There is even a swipe at Cosima, under the heading “Voluntary sacrifice”: “Nothing that women of significance do for their husbands, if they are men of renown and greatness, does more to make their lives easier than becoming the receptacle, as it were, for the general disfavor and occasional ill humor of other people.” That Nietzsche felt a strong attraction to Cosima had long been a complicating factor.

Nietzsche hoped that Wagner would take the book’s challenge in stride, as part of a back-and-forth between equals. Two copies of Human, All Too Human were sent to Bayreuth in April 1878, with a playful dedicatory poem from “Friedrich the Free-minded of Basel” to “the Meister and the Meisterin.” Cosima wrote: “At noon arrival of a new book by friend Nietzsche—feelings of apprehension after a short glance through it.” On subsequent days she described it as “strangely perverse,” “sad,” and “pitiful,” insisting all the while that she was not reading it. “Evil has triumphed here,” she wrote to a friend.

Wagner was no less dismayed, but he kept on reading, and even gave a lyrical recitation of the book’s ending—the ode to the wanderer, who sees “swarms of muses dancing past him in the mist of the mountains.” Did he feel a lingering fondness for Nietzsche’s thought, foreign as it now seemed? One day Wagner thought of sending Nietzsche a congratulatory telegram on the birthday of Voltaire, who is lionized in Human, All Too Human. This might have been the kind of large-spirited gesture that Nietzsche sought. Cosima talked her husband out of it. Bayreuth maintained a cold façade, and Nietzsche felt a “great excommunication.”

That summer, Wagner published the third part of an essay titled “Public and Popularity.” This work and other writings of his last years appeared in the Bayreuther Blätter, the newly founded magazine of the Bayreuth circle. (Wagner had originally wanted Nietzsche to edit the publication; Wolzogen, the labeler of leitmotifs, took the post instead.) Amid a typically rambling disquisition, Wagner refers to certain philologists and philosophers who have achieved “unbounded progress in the field of criticism of all things human and inhuman.” These individuals enact “pitiless” sacrifices of noble victims; they renounce the worship of genius; they are “astonished that Sunday-morning bells still ring today for a Jew crucified two thousand years ago.” (This answers one of Nietzsche’s jabs at Christianity.) Cosima wrote that her husband had taken on Nietzsche “in such a way that a reader who is not fully in the know will not notice.” The ploy was hardly as subtle as that. The excommunication was now official.

Wagner took special umbrage at Nietzsche’s critique of compassion, which directly contradicted his own philosophy. In the course of stewing over Human, All Too Human, he remarked that the chief characteristic of the Devil was “malice, pleasure in the misfortune of others.” Nietzsche appeared to be extolling such pleasure; Wagner thought himself to be taking the side of the weak, in a Christian spirit. If Nietzsche had been able to debate the question face to face, he might have responded that he was concerned chiefly with the hypocrisy of the compassionate; the ones taking pity find selfish delight in a display of emotion and a sense of power. He might also have noted the limits of Wagner’s love of humanity, particularly with regard to Jews.

In the end, both men harbored impulses that look ominous from the vantage point of the post-Holocaust era. What Wagner disliked in Nietzsche—the pitilessness, the exaltation of power—and what Nietzsche disliked in Wagner—the Teutonic chauvinism, the antisemitism—added up to an approximation of the fascist mentality. Once the better angels of their natures are set aside, Wagner and Nietzsche darkly complete each other in the Nazi mind. Of the two, only Nietzsche had an inkling of what the future held. “I know my lot,” he wrote in Ecce Homo. “One day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous—to a crisis like none there has been on earth…”


Wagner had no direct contact with his former acolyte in his final years. The last chance for a reunion would have been at the premiere of Parsifal, in 1882. Nietzsche told friends that he would go to the festival if he received a personal invitation, but none came. It is likely that Wagner regretted the demise of the friendship. Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, who was at Bayreuth that summer, claimed that the composer said to her, “Tell your brother that since he left me I am alone.” But public concessions were not in Wagner’s nature. Nietzsche was reduced to monitoring events through intermediaries. “The old sorcerer [Zauberer] has had another tremendous success, with old men sobbing, etc.,” he wrote to his amanuensis Heinrich Köselitz. Nietzsche is presumably the source of the epithet “Sorcerer of Bayreuth.”

Any attempted reconciliation would have been spoiled by the publication that summer of The Joyful Science, which sets aside indirect sniping in favor of frontal assault. Nietzsche accuses Wagner of having misunderstood the philosophy implicit in his own art. Schopenhauer has beguiled him into anti-Jewish blather, into a dubious conflation of Christianity and Buddhism, into an overweening concern for the well-being of animals. (The last shot was carefully aimed, given Wagner’s adoration of his pets.) What is the true philosophy? “The innocence of the highest selfishness; belief in the great passion as a good in itself; in one word, what is Siegfried-like in the countenance of his heroes.” In the next part of The Joyful Science, Nietzsche announces the death of God. Wagner is a fallen Wotan, his staff broken by his substitute son.

The stage is set for the most troublesome of Nietzschean beings, the Übermensch. The word had surfaced in the philosopher’s earlier writings, but usually in a negative sense. The critique of the “cult of the genius” in Human, All Too Human—unmistakably directed at Wagner—isolates the crisis moment when the genius begins to “take himself for something superhuman.” Then, in The Joyful Science, the term acquires a positive connotation. In the section headed “The greatest advantage of polytheism,” Nietzsche advocates a “plurality of norms,” and in so doing mentions “gods, heroes, and superhumans of all kinds, as well as near-humans and subhumans, dwarves, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, and devils.” It sounds like the dramatis personae of the Ring, augmented by Greek and Christian guests. The translation of “Übermensch” as “superman,” popularized by Shaw in his 1903 play Man and Superman, is problematic not only because “Mensch” is gender-neutral but because the word now makes readers think of the brawny comic-book character. Nietzsche’s overman is no caped hero, although he is clearly a superior sort of being, almost a new species.

The Übermensch makes a formal entrance in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche was writing at the time of Wagner’s death. Zarathustra, the Übermensch’s prophet, appears toward the end of The Joyful Science, preparing to descend from his mountain and undertake his Untergang, his “going under.” The word “Untergang,” which can mean descent, decline, downfall, dissolution, or destruction, is one that Wagner uses repeatedly and indiscriminately. He speaks of the downfall variously of the state, of the gods, of history, of the world, of himself, and, notoriously, of Jews. He wrote to Liszt in 1853: “Mark well my new poem—it contains the world’s beginning and its downfall!” Untergang also has a philosophical history; Hegel’s Logic states that the highest stage of human understanding is that in which its Untergang begins. So Zarathustra’s going under is also a going over (Übergang) to new life, to the world of the Übermensch. The words are paired in one of the book’s most celebrated passages:

Mankind is a rope fastened between animal and Übermensch—a rope over an abyss … What is great about human beings is that they are a bridge and not a purpose: what is lovable about human beings is that they are an Übergang and an Untergang.

Roger Hollinrake, in Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Philosophy of Pessimism, argues that both Zarathustra and the Übermensch stem from Wagner. In one passage, Zarathustra sounds very much like the Wanderer of Siegfried—Wotan in disguise—in dialogue with the earth goddess:

WANDERER: Awake! Vala! Vala, awake! From your long sleep I awaken you, slumberer. I summon you forth: Up! Up! Up from the misty chasm, from the depth of night! Erda! Erda! Eternal woman!

ZARATHUSTRA: Up, abysmal thought, out of my depths! I am your rooster and dawn, you sleepy worm: Up! Up!… And once you are awake, you shall remain awake eternally. It is not my manner to wake great-grandmothers from their sleep only to tell them—go back to sleep!… My abyss speaks, I have unfolded my ultimate depth to the light!

Yet the Übermensch is something other than a fearless, boyish hero. (Nietzsche’s misogyny makes a female Übermensch unlikely.) In fact, he eludes any kind of brief description. His mastery is rooted in tremendous struggle, not only with the outer world but with himself. Nietzsche melts down the materials of the Ring as he forges his own creation.

In the last book of Zarathustra, the protagonist meets the Zauberer, the Sorcerer, one of several tempters who try to lure him from his path. Even if we hadn’t read Nietzsche’s prior references to the “old sorcerer,” we would recognize Wagner’s personality in this restless, twitching, frantically gesturing figure, who babbles self-pitying monologues and dubs himself “the greatest person living today.” Zarathustra exposes him as an actor, a counterfeiter. After spluttering in protest, the Sorcerer gives in: “I am weary of and nauseated by my arts, I am not great, why do I pretend!” A conciliatory dialogue follows, and the Sorcerer hails Zarathustra as “a vessel of wisdom, a saint of knowledge, a great human being.” This seems pure fantasy on Nietzsche’s part, an imaginary victory over his mentor turned oppressor—although he claims in his notebooks that when he confronted Wagner in private the composer accepted the criticism. “I wish that he would also do it publicly. For what constitutes the greatness of a character other than that he is capable, for the sake of truth, of also taking sides against himself?”

The Sorcerer later stages a momentary comeback. In a pseudo-Christian supper scene, he strums his harp and sings mumbo-jumbo redolent of the Tristan libretto. The assembled company is hypnotized. Before long, all turn religious, kneeling before an ass and chanting Parsifalian pieties. Zarathustra responds with a string of contemptuous rebuttals, leading to another make-believe dialogue with Wagner’s ghost:

“And you,” said Zarathustra, “you wicked old sorcerer, what have you done! Who in these liberated times is supposed to believe in you anymore, if you believe in such asinine divinities?

“What you did was a stupidity; how could you, you clever one, commit such a stupidity!”

“Oh Zarathustra,” replied the clever Sorcerer, “you’re right, it was a stupidity—and it’s been hard enough for me.”

The pious mood gives way to roguish laughter, and it is in this spirit that the book ends: learning to laugh, to love the earth, to love what is fated, to be willing, under the doctrine of eternal recurrence, to relive the same life in every excruciating detail.


Nietzsche writes to Cosima Wagner, January 1889

On February 3, 1883, Wagner glanced at an article about The Joyful Science, and, according to Cosima, responded with “utter disgust.” He died ten days later. It was not the ending that Nietzsche had pictured for a friendship that remained active in his mind. He was distraught but also relieved. The tension with Wagner had become unbearable. He wrote to Köselitz: “In the end, it was the aged Wagner against whom I had to defend myself; as far as the real Wagner is concerned, I intend in good measure to become his heir.”

In the major works of his last years of sanity, from 1885 to the end of 1888, Nietzsche brings his diatribe against conventional morality to its highest pitch. Beyond Good and Evil provisionally endorses “harshness, violence, slavery, danger in the streets and in the heart, concealment, stoicism, the art of seduction, and devilry of every kind … everything evil, horrible, tyrannical, predatory, and snakelike in humanity.” All this “serves to elevate the species ‘humanity’ as well as its opposite.” On the Genealogy of Morality relates the good and noble to the innocent conscience of the predator, the “magnificent blond beast roaming about lustily after prey and victory.” Modern European civilization, meek and effeminate, has lost touch with the voluptuous cruelty once exhibited by Germanic tribes. The Antichrist continues the theme: “What is good? Everything that heightens in man the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself.” What is bad? Weakness, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion—Mitleid again.

Nietzsche is still looking for a savior figure, an unfettered Siegfried. In the Genealogy, he dreams of a future hero of “sublime malice,” a “redeeming man of great love and contempt.” Insinuating italics differentiate this redeemer from the ascetic hero of Parsifal. Redemption will entail not a flight from reality but a close embrace of the true nature of humanity. Nietzsche’s latter-day defenders posit that he is not actively praising war, aggression, and the rest. Rather, he is acknowledging that human beings will invariably be vicious to one another and to the world around them. Nietzsche’s critique of morality posits that moral language is not the same as moral action, and, indeed, that moral language can serve as a cover for actions that are immoral in the extreme. We must accept the reality of human nature and the vicissitudes of fate. The Dionysian urge is a “triumphal yes to life over and above all death and change.”

The Case of Wagner, written in the spring of 1888, promises to be the ultimate act of apostasy. In a style of high intellectual comedy, Nietzsche pillories German gigantism (“the lie of the grand style”); diagnoses the composer as a pan-European neurosis (“Wagner est une névrose”); coins deft one-sentence summaries of the operas (“You should never be too sure who you are really married to” is Lohengrin); praises Bizet’s Carmen at Wagner’s expense (“Music must be mediterraneanized”); and inserts a cackling footnote to the effect that the author of “Jewishness in Music” might himself have been Jewish. Yet the entire exercise is undercut by a preface that places Wagner at the very heart of modern life. The “case” is especially indispensable to the philosopher, for

where would he find a more knowledgeable guide to the labyrinth of the modern soul, a more articulate connoisseur of souls, than Wagner? Modernity speaks its most intimate language in Wagner: it hides neither its good nor its evil, it has forgotten any sense of shame. And conversely: when one is clear about the good and evil in Wagner, one is close to a reckoning of the value of the modern.—I understand perfectly when a musician says today: “I hate Wagner, but I cannot stand any other music.” But I would also understand if a philosopher were to declare: “Wagner sums up modernity. It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian…”

What does Nietzsche mean by “modernity”? Competing definitions of the word exist in different intellectual spheres. In philosophy, it is often associated with the formation of a free, self-determined consciousness in the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. In sociology, it applies more often to nineteenth-century modernization—the economic and social upheaval analyzed by Marx, Weber, and Émile Durkheim. In cultural criticism, the “modern” denotes a radicalization of the arts, culminating in the modernist movements of the early twentieth century. Nietzsche defines modernity more narrowly, as the culture of decadence—overripe, indecisive, weak, detached from primal instincts, premised on false ideas of freedom. He must have known, however, that such an untethered abstraction would strike his readers in various ways. Broader understandings of modernity crowd into our minds. The Case of Wagner is more the opening of a case than the settling of one: it provokes a debate about what it means to be “modern” just as the word is coming into vogue.

Toward the end of his career, Nietzsche drops the pretense of being anti-Wagnerian and confesses his vestigial adoration. In Ecce Homo, a paragraph on Tristan lapses back into the rhapsodic mode of The Birth of Tragedy and “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth”:

To this day I am still searching for a work of such dangerous fascination, of such shuddering sweet infinity, as Tristan—I am searching all the arts in vain … I think that I know better than anyone what tremendous things Wagner was capable of, the fifty worlds of foreign ecstasies that only he had wings to reach; and being what I am, strong enough to turn what is most questionable and dangerous to my advantage and thus become even stronger, I name Wagner the greatest benefactor of my life. That which relates us—the fact that we have suffered more deeply, also from each other, than people of this century are capable of suffering—will reunite our names eternally …

Such passages support Thomas Mann’s belief that Nietzsche’s polemic against Wagner is really a “panegyric with the sign reversed, another form of glorification,” serving more to “goad one’s enthusiasm than to cripple it.”

Most of Nietzsche’s public commentary on Wagner takes the form of propaganda, positive or negative. In the more considered passages of his writings and notebooks, he finds his way to a clear-eyed, nuanced understanding. The Joyful Science dismantles clichés about Wagnerian hugeness and loudness, even before such clichés had fully taken hold. The composer may think of himself as a maker of “great walls and brazen murals,” but he is really a master of psychological moments, an “Orpheus of all secret misery.” The Case of Wagner scorns the cycle’s popular showpieces as so much “noise about nothing.” Instead, we should marvel at the “wealth of colors, of half shadows, of the secrets of dying light … glances, tendernesses, and comforting words.” Wagner is “our greatest miniaturist in music, who can urge an infinity of meaning and sweetness into the smallest spaces.”

Nietzsche also works to rescue Wagner from the triumphalism of the new Reich. In his 1878 notebooks, he sees the Bayreuth ritual as both a self-aggrandizement and a self-enslavement on the part of the German public. The resulting psychological contradiction could lead, he speculates, to a scapegoating of outsiders, such as Jews. One project of the later writings is to separate Wagner from bad national mythologies and guide him toward the Nietzschean ideal of the “good European,” who has no fatherland or motherland. The Teutonic culture-hero venerated in imperial Germany is a “phantom,” unrelated to the immoralist-atheist whom Nietzsche knew in private. The true Wagner is a “foreign country,” a “living protest against all ‘German virtues.’” Nietzsche’s joke about Wagner being translated into German makes the same point. The composer’s unforgivable mistake was that he “condescended to the Germans—that he became reichsdeutsch.

Most impressively, Nietzsche exposes the neurosis that his own excessive fandom has generated—a dynamic that is by no means unique to Wagnerism. “Wholesale love for Wagner’s art is precisely as unjust as wholesale rejection,” he writes in 1878. “I revenged myself on Wagner for my deceived expectations,” he says. Tellingly, in the midst of such musings, he quotes the passage from Siegfried that Wagner was composing when the two men met in Tribschen: “He who woke me has wounded me!” Nietzsche would appear to be Brünnhilde, sleeping within the ring of fire until the arrogant, flawed hero makes his entrance.

This furiously conflicted relationship is best understood in terms of the Greek agon—the contest between worthy adversaries, in athletics or the arts. Nietzsche wrote about the agon in his 1872 essay “Homer’s Contest,” saying that the Greeks abhorred the predominance of a single figure and desired, “as a means of protection against genius—a second genius.” It is not far-fetched to guess that Nietzsche was thinking of himself and Wagner. As the philosopher Christa Davis Acampora emphasizes, the aim of the agon is not the destruction of the other but the elevation of the self, through a sublimation of the ineradicable human instinct toward aggression and violence. “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” shows that the composer’s battles with contemporaries were the crucible in which he “became what he is”—an early version of a favorite formula. Likewise, Nietzsche’s agon with Wagner is part of a process of self-formation. In fact, this contest benefits both participants, defining the one and redefining the other. The ritual of going up against Wagner, the dialectic of love and hate, often recurs in the annals of Wagnerism.

Around Christmastime 1888, while staying in Turin, Nietzsche sent a copy of Ecce Homo to Cosima. A draft for the accompanying letter is addressed to “the only woman I have ever revered,” and is signed “The Antichrist.” In the first days of the new year, Nietzsche broke down in the streets of Turin, allegedly after seeing a horse beaten by a coachman. For a few days, he continued to send incoherently stylish correspondence, calling himself “the Crucified” and “Dionysus.” Cosima received several more letters; one of them, addressed to “Princess Ariadne,” announced that the writer’s previous incarnations were Buddha, Dionysus, Alexander, Caesar, Voltaire, Napoleon, and “perhaps also Richard Wagner.” Once he was institutionalized, Nietzsche was heard to say, “My wife, Cosima Wagner, brought me here.”

Having become himself in the course of his agon with Wagner, Nietzsche fell back under the sorcerer’s spell in the end. He lived eleven more years, increasingly blank-eyed, gentle during the day, given to animal groans at night. In fulfillment of his prior prophecies, his work enjoyed an ever-growing vogue, soon to rival Wagnerism in breadth and intensity. But the news of his victory passed him by. In 1900, he was buried by the side of his father’s church.


On November 21, 1874, Wagner finished the orchestration of Götterdämmerung, ending a project that he had begun twenty-six years earlier. “Thrice sacred, memorable day!” Cosima wrote in her diary. At lunchtime, though, she inadvertently enraged her husband by showing him a letter from her father. Why the letter caused offense is not clear—it seems that Wagner simply found it distracting—but Cosima spiraled into self-castigating despair. “The fact that I dedicated my life in suffering to this work has not earned me the right to celebrate its completion in joy,” she wrote. The two were later reconciled, but the dispute was a strange way to mark the realization of a work that affirms the triumph of world-changing love.

George Bernard Shaw accuses Wagner of a sort of backsliding in Götterdämmerung—of reverting to such grand-opera clichés as “a magnificent love duet … the opera chorus in full parade on the stage … theatrical grandiosities that recall Meyerbeer and Verdi … romantic death song for the tenor.” Shaw neglects the dramatic purpose of such well-worn devices: we have left the realm of the gods and are down on the human plain. Hagen, son of Alberich, is hatching a scheme to defeat Siegfried and win back the Ring. His unwitting ally is his half brother Gunther, the status-seeking chief of the Gibichungs. When Siegfried arrives at the Gibichung court, he is served a memory-erasing potion, so that he forgets Brünnhilde and falls in love with Gunther’s sister, Gutrune. It is decided that Gunther should marry the Valkyrie and that Siegfried should disguise himself as Gunther in order to win her hand. This fully operatic web of deceit stirs resentment and vengefulness on all sides. An infuriated Brünnhilde tells Hagen of Siegfried’s vulnerability—his unprotected back—and Hagen makes fatal use of the information by the waters of the Rhine. Before Siegfried meets his fate, the Rhinemaidens plead one last time for the Ring, their cry of “Weialala leia” grown forlorn.

Siegfried dies, the Funeral Music thunders, and Brünnhilde arrives to deliver her final monologue. “All things, all things, all things I know,” she sings, without entirely disclosing what she has learned. Deciding on the right ending gave Wagner considerable trouble. The essential action was fixed early on: Siegfried’s funeral pyre blazes; Brünnhilde rides her horse, Grane, into the flames; the Ring falls back into the Rhine. But what conclusion should Brünnhilde draw? In the initial 1848 sketch, with its happy message of liberation for all, she exudes revolutionary fervor: “Rejoice, Grane: soon we will be free!” Soon, though, Wagner’s vision darkened. The flames of the pyre consume Valhalla, and the end becomes a Todeserlösung, a redemption through death. In the version that was printed in 1853, he added a passage influenced by Feuerbach, in which material society is overcome by the power of love:

Though the race of gods

passed away like a breath,

though I leave behind me

a world without rulers,

I now bequeath to that world

the hoard of my most sacred wisdom.—

Not goods, not gold,

nor godly glory;

not house, not court,

nor lordly pomp;

not the treacherous bonds

of murky treaties

not the harsh decree

of dissembling convention:

blessed in joy and sorrow—

love alone can be.

The “Feuerbach ending,” as it is known, gave way to a “Schopenhauer ending,” in which Brünnhilde takes cover in visionary solitude:

I draw away from desire’s realm,

I flee forever the realm of delusion;

the open gates

of eternal becoming

I shut behind me …

Deepest suffering

of sorrowing love

opened my eyes:

I saw the world end.

This, too, was excised, to the regret of the young Nietzsche. Ultimately, Wagner chose not to delay the denouement with philosophical musings. Brünnhilde proceeds directly to her final lines, in which she urges Grane toward the flames—“Does the laughing fire lure you to him?”—and jubilantly salutes her beloved: “Siegfried! Siegfried! See! In bliss your wife bids you welcome!”

In the orchestra, we hear a reprise of the galloping motif of “The Ride of the Valkyries”—one of the first inspirations that Wagner had for the Ring, in the summer of 1850. It is joined to a regal theme that has been heard only once before in the cycle. In Act III of Walküre, after Brünnhilde saves Sieglinde and the unborn Siegfried from Wotan’s wrath, Sieglinde responds with a hymn of praise, addressing the Valkyrie as “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid!” (“O noblest wonder! Glorious woman!”). The melody for these words turns floridly around the tonic note, as in a bel canto aria, and then dips down a seventh before climbing back up to the tonic. Wagner called it the “glorification of Brünnhilde,” although it seems more a glorification of Sieglinde’s selfless love. Once Valhalla falls, this theme becomes sovereign, with a stepwise bass line supplying hymnal gravity. The harmonization is almost sentimental: two-chord sequences like Amens, a wistful turn to the subdominant minor. The cycle ends in an incandescence of D-flat major.

Later it became fashionable to regard the ending of Götterdämmerung as a disappointment. Shaw said it was “trumpery.” Nietzsche thought that Wagner should have stuck with his original ending, in which Brünnhilde “was to say goodbye with a song in honor of free love, leaving the world to the hope of a socialist utopia where ‘all will be well.’” Theodor W. Adorno, one of the leading Wagner skeptics of the twentieth century, compared the closing theme to the finale of Gounod’s Faust, “in which Gretchen hovers as a Christ-angel above the rooftops of a medium-sized German town.”

Many modern Wagnerites are inclined to read the ending not as a turnabout but as a continuation of the composer’s long struggle with political and personal power. In Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire—a title derived from the various versions of Brünnhilde’s monologue—Mark Berry asserts that the closing theme is no cliché of Love Triumphing over All but a “shift, albeit partial, from erotic to charitable love,” positing the basis for a humane political state. Slavoj Žižek, similarly, understands it as “a gesture of supreme freedom and autonomy,” the “transformation from eros to agape.” Alain Badiou sees not merely the death of the gods but “the destruction of all mythologies.”

The final tableau of Götterdämmerung includes a silent human chorus, which gathers as the fires consume Valhalla. “Men and women watch with the greatest emotion,” Wagner writes in the full score. In Patrice Chéreau’s epochal 1976–80 production of the Ring at Bayreuth, these citizens of an unknown future turn around as Brünnhilde’s melody is unfurled and move to the front of the stage, looking out at the auditorium. They seem to say, in the words of the musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “It is up to you!” Their implicit message recalls Wagner’s early prospectus for a festival at which the theater was to have been torn down and the score burnt: “To those who had enjoyed the thing I would then say: ‘Now go do the same!’” The most monumental artwork of the nineteenth century is merely a prelude to future creation. The audience must write the rest.

Copyright © 2020 by Alex Ross

Lines from “Gently and Softly,” by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Peter Filkins, from Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann. Copyright © 1978, 2000 by Piper Verlag GmbH, München. Translation copyright © 2006 by Peter Filkins. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Zephyr Press,

Lines from “The Ring Cycle,” from Collected Poems, by James Merrill. Copyright © 2001 by the Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.